Super Bowl sod

By Derek Belt
Mobile Press-Register
Feb. 3, 2007

ELBERTA, ALA. – When the NFL’s turf-management team first inspected the Georgia-grown sod that was to blanket the field at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, south Baldwin grass grower Eddie Woerner made sure his cell phone was fully charged.

The call he anticipated came later that day. A change was being made. It was January 18—less than three weeks before the big game.

“Eddie,” the NFL official said, “can you start Monday morning?” Woerner shot back: “Sir, we’ll be finished by Sunday morning.”

By daybreak that Friday, a roll of Woerner’s best turf—developed by Elberta-based Southern Turf Nurseries and grown at two of its four worldwide locations, which include farms in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Chile—was being laid every three minutes.

By noon, the field was done and ready for painting, and by mid-afternoon that Saturday everything was in place.

“We didn’t waste any time. We went right to work,” said Woerner, 55, a lifelong Baldwin County resident who will watch the Super Bowl from a private skybox high above Dolphin Stadium on Sunday. He won’t just be watching the players on the field or the coaches on the sidelines, however. He’ll be watching the grass underneath them all.

His grass. His work.

“Total excitement,” Woerner said Thursday over a bottomless cup of coffee. “The Super Bowl is the pinnacle of turf producing. It means the same to me as a ballplayer getting a ring.”

But it almost didn’t happen.

Despite supplying Dolphin Stadium with sod for the past few seasons, Woerner’s company did not receive the Super Bowl contract. Instead, the job went to Phillip Jennings Turf Farms, a Georgia-based company that also provided the sod for Super Bowl XXIX in Jacksonville.

Midway through the installation process, however, NFL turf officials deemed the Jennings sod unfit for play. According to both Phillip Jennings and NFL Field Director Ed Mangan, the Jennings sod was just too wet because of heavy rains and a joint decision was made to go with Plan B.

“We deal in a business with a live product and conditions need to be right to work with that product,” Mangan said Friday from Miami. “We had the grass on the way down and there was just too much water in it for us to feel safely comfortable to have a game on it. We couldn’t wait any longer. We had to make a change.”

With no time to lose and only 40 percent of the Jennings turf on the field, the NFL turned to Woerner for the rest. Woerner’s turf, like many grasses grown for sporting events, is a hybrid—a product of “mixing and matching” that he says will hold up under any conditions and in any part of the country.

“It’s the best there is,” Woerner said.

Woerner’s Super Bowl sod doesn’t have a name because he wants to keep the ingredients a secret. Hall of Fame groundskeeper George Toma said Woener’s special turf is like “cocoa mat” in the way it goes down smooth and rolls up quickly.

“You could probably lay it on your living room floor and there wouldn’t be any dirt,” said Toma, who has served as a groundskeeper for all 41 Super Bowls, 36 Pro Bowls and two Olympic Games. Nicknamed the “Marquis de Sod,” Toma celebrated his 78th birthday on Friday.

Woerner said the Jennings turf that was originally laid down stretches from stands to sidelines on  both sides of the stadium. He said his turf covers the length of the football field as well as the open spaces behind each endzone.

“You’ve got to have some backups. You’ve got to have a plan,” Mangan said of the decision to switch grass on such short notice.

“It’s about the players and the NFL and the best interest of the client,” Jennings said Friday before flying to Miami. “When Mother Nature dealt us the kind of hand we got, you can’t work with it. We made a decision with the NFL to go with Plan B.”

Southern Turf Sales Director Mark Paluch, who also serves as production manager for Woerner’s special turf, was waiting in the parking lot at Dolphin Stadium—”Just in case,” Woerner said—when the phone call came from the NFL.

The league asked Woerner, known locally as “Eddie Boy,” how long it would take to get a sample of his sod to the stadium. He said it would take about an hour. A few moments later they found Paluch ready and waiting with two fresh samples.

“They didn’t know he was in the parking lot,” Woerner said with a smile.

The samples were enough to sway the NFL.

“This turf here, I’m proud of it,” Toma said. “After the game the Chicago Bears or Indianapolis Colts might be world champions, but with the playing field here you’d have to say Eddie Woerner is the world champ with his method to grow this grass. There will never be sod like Eddie grows it.”

A self-proclaimed “farm boy from Alabama” who never went to college, Woerner and several family members got into the grass-growing business in 1978 when the farming industry dried up in Baldwin County.

In 1997, the Woerners bought Southern Turf Nurseries, which specializes in sports fields and has provided sod for venues all over the country, including the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Braves.

Southern Turf gained national recognition in 1999 when Woerner laid natural grass inside the Louisiana Superdome for a New Orleans Saints preseason game. The experiment was a considered by many to be a success, and Woerner said he’s been working towards the Super Bowl ever since.

Woerner said the financial arrangements for supplying the Super Bowl with its sod are still under negotiation, but he said recognition is more important than money at this point in his career.

“I’d do it just to do it. I don’t care about the money,” Woerner said. “This is so much fun. It doesn’t get any bigger than the Super Bowl.”