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This Groundskeeper Has Worked Every Super Bowl. He Turns 91 On Sunday

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When San Francisco and Kansas City kick off in tomorrow's Super Bowl, they'll compete on a field prepped by the greatest groundskeeper in the history of sports - that's according to the NFL and others. A man who's worked every single Super Bowl and earned nicknames like the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Man and the Sod Father. His real name is George Toma, and his job...

GEORGE TOMA: We're here to help to have good grass, so we give the players a safe playing field and give the fans in the stands and on TV a field of beauty.

MONTAGNE: That is George Toma, who is 90 years old.

TOMA: And Sunday, I'll be 91 years old.

MONTAGNE: Of course, a birthday on Super Bowl Sunday is even more special considering his home club, Kansas City, is back in the big game for the first time in a half century. George Toma was on hand in 1967 for Super Bowl 1, and as the game's prestige grew, so, too, did complications for the groundskeeper.

TOMA: Thousands of kids jumping up and 35 pieces of stage coming out, and some of them weigh as much as 8,000 pounds.

MONTAGNE: And as far as maintaining a pitch-perfect pitch for the players, that is both an art and a science, says Trevor Vance.

TREVOR VANCE: I'm a senior director of grounds and landscaping for the Kansas City Royals.

MONTAGNE: Vance got his sod-laying start under the master.

VANCE: People can paint a football field, or people can really paint a football field with colors and everything.

MONTAGNE: And Vance says George Toma can really paint, not just the grid lines but bright logos in the end zones and on 50-yard lines. Born in 1929, Toma got his start at 12 years old working for a Class A baseball club in Pennsylvania. And after the Korean War, he landed in Kansas City, where Trevor Vance joined his grounds crew.

VANCE: And we all started such a young age that George would always make sure on Friday he'd come in and really chew our butts really good saying, you know, you better behave yourselves this weekend. I need you to work Monday. So he really helped us grow up.

MONTAGNE: And those Kansas City ties mean Toma is rooting for the Chiefs tomorrow.

TOMA: But I have a lot of respect for the 49ers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...About the weather. And here's the way it shapes up...

MONTAGNE: Oh, the 49ers. The weather really mattered back in 1982 when Toma was at San Francisco's Candlestick Park for one big playoff game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Clear and mild after 6 1/2 inches of rain earlier in the week...

TOMA: We had to pump water out, and this one lady was so outstanding.

MONTAGNE: A lady with a lot of clout in San Francisco who moved heaven and earth to make sure the field was re-sodded and ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Third and three...

MONTAGNE: For a game that would feature a fourth-quarter play now known simply as The Catch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Montana looking, looking, throwing in the end zone. Caught it. Dwight Clark.

MONTAGNE: That would be Joe Montana throwing to Dwight Clark.

TOMA: Sportswriters and casters said that was the most artistic play they've seen in ages. And they said it was on a great playing field.

MONTAGNE: A great playing field that George Toma takes no credit for.

TOMA: That credit goes to the woman that was down there in her rain hat, her trench coat. And that lady was Mayor Dianne Feinstein.

MONTAGNE: George Toma has saved countless fields, but his good friend Trevor Vance says the Sod Father's own lawn - well...

VANCE: George manages to kill his yard every year.

TOMA: That's true because I experimented with different grasses, different fertilizers, things like that. Like my wife tells me, there's no money in the world that can pay me to do what I do because it's what I love to do.

MONTAGNE: And here's an early happy birthday to the Sod Father.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.