EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — George Toma’s 85th birthday is next Sunday, which also happens to be Super Bowl Sunday.
It seems appropriate that Toma would celebrate his birth the same day as football’s biggest game because he has helped prepare the playing field for every single Super Bowl, including Super Bowl XLVIII.
There is one twist this year, however. The 82,500-seat MetLife Stadium will host the first outdoor Super Bowl in a northern city.
Toma, known as “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Man,” said snow was being removed from the seats at the stadium, as well as all other parts of the open air facility Thursday.
Ryan Toma, George’s son, said having to remove the snow was a good dry run for the crew.
“Now, if it snows on Super Sunday, we’ll be ready and we’ll know what to do,” Ryan said. “Wait a minute, let me re-phrase that. I meant to say when it snows on Super Sunday — and you know it will snow — we will be ready for it.”
While the game is still more than a week away, The Weather Channel says there is at least a chance for “a light East Coast snow event” during Super Bowl weekend. Temperatures for game day, however, are predicted to be much milder than they have been the past week.
And fortunately for Toma and his crew, the field at MetLife Stadium has an artificial playing surface, so as long as there isn’t a significant amount of snow it should be in good shape for the game.
Toma, a native of Edwardsville, wasn’t sure he would be extending his streak of Super Bowl preparations to 48.
He underwent an aortic valve replacement in June, and after five weeks in a Kansas City hospital and months of cardiac rehab, he is back in his familiar role of overseeing the preparations for the NFL’s premier event.
“Irreplaceable,” is how NFL Super Bowl field director Ed Mangan described Toma. “If he thought a little heart surgery would keep him away, he was wrong. We would have chartered a plane to pick him up to bring him here. It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl without George Toma.”
Ryan Toma is at his dad’s side once again. He said Mangan bought Toma a cane to help him get around the stadium.
“It’s a minor miracle that he is even here,” Ryan said. “But if you know my dad, there’s really nothing that would keep him away.”
George Toma said every Super Bowl stadium goes through an extensive makeover leading up to the big game.
A story in the New York Post said pre-game preparations have required more than 10,000 workers starting a full month in advance and potentially battling the elements to get the stadium ready.
Mark Hill, director of quality assurance for UBU Sports, the Dalton, Ga., company that manufactured the playing surface at the stadium said he has known Toma for 25 years and that there is no better person around to prepare a field for play.
“What you have with George Toma is 100 percent quality,” Hill said. “When that field is ready for play, it is ready for play. No matter what conditions come up, this field will be ready.”
Hill said that whether the surface is natural grass or synthetic, Toma always knows how to get it ready.
“George has always known what he’s doing” Hill said. “He’s been around the block, well, several blocks actually. George will be a pretty tough act to follow, but whoever learns from George, learns the right way to do things.”
Toma offered some statistics about the MetLife Stadium playing surface:
• The fibers are 2-1/2 inches high and there are 1.4 billion blades of synthetic grass on the field. “That’s a lot of blades,” he said.
• It took 8,320 miles of fiber to make the blades; if strung together they would reach from New York City to Paris and back.
• The surface is backed by 200 tons of crumb rubber made from 36,504 tires that Toma said were saved from landfills.
Toma said the staff at home field of the NFL’s Giants and Jets have been great to work with and fans of both teams should feel proud, even though both host teams ended up missing the postseason.
“If you asked for something today, they had it for you yesterday,” he said of the staff.
Despite a busy schedule, he took time to talk about his home area. Toma’s sister, Catherine, lives in Edwardsville and Toma said he has to come for a visit soon.
He said he and his 32-man crew were working on the end zones, painting one “Broncos” and the other “Seahawks.” He enjoys telling everyone he can that this year’s game is not far from where he grew up.
“I love to tell people about Edwardsville and Wyoming Valley,” he said. “I mention Wilkes-Barre and most of them know where it is. I tell them it will always be the Valley with a Heart.”
In 2001, Toma, also referred to as the “God of Sod,” was presented with the Pioneer Award for innovative contributions to professional football by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Toma’s career began at Artillery Park, home of the minor league baseball Wilkes-Barre Barons, and took him to the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs, all 48 Super Bowls and into the Major League Baseball Groundskeeper Hall of Fame. He served in the military during the Korean War.
“Just tell everybody back home I’m OK and I will be there soon,” he said.