VOL. 116 | NO. 169 | Friday, August 30, 2002
One hundred yards of picturesque grass equals more than a thousand
memories to John Sowell
By ANDREW BELL
The Daily News
One hundred yards of picturesque grass equals more than a
thousand memories to John Sowell.
The supervisor of the turf in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium
for the past 15 years has a trophy case in his office near the stadiums tunnel
housing roughly 30 signature footballs memorializing games played on the
There are a few balls from a couple of the NFL games played
there. More balls are dated from unforgettable collegiate games.
Sowell lists the afternoon the Memphis Tigers upset Alabama
13-10 in 1987 and then Tennessee 21-17 in 1997 as highlights.
More recollections stem from annual Liberty Bowl contests,
such as the one in which legendary Alabama head coach Paul Bear Bryant
coached his final game on Dec. 29, 1982, in sub-zero conditions.
I came out of the
tunnel prior to the game and Coach Bryant was watching players warm-up from the
end zone, Sowell fondly recalled.
He said, How are you young man? and from there we had
good conversation for a few minutes.
Other celebrities Sowell was acquainted with include former
coaches Gene Stallings, Johnny Majors and the late Rex Dockery, a former U of M
head coach who was killed in a plane crash in 1983. The stadiums field is
named after Dockery.
For 8 months out of the year, Sowell and three field
maintenance employees work diligently to ensure the stadiums turf looks plush
from the stands and the Goodyear Blimp, but also can withstand the clash of
cleats desperate for control of the pigskin.
Sowell was not hired 20 years ago as turf supervisor, but
assumed the position 5 years later when budget cuts were made. He took a few
classes to learn the science of maintaining optimum field turf. The rest of the
knowledge he learned from experience.
Science and technology are so advanced these days, he
said. I dont know everything, but I know what works for this field.
Besides irrigating the Bermuda, cutting it and applying
between $10,000 and $13,000 of herbicides and fertilizer on the field each
year, responsibilities also include helping get mascots and team names painted
in the end zones.
Sowell and co-workers Earnest Washington, Edward Shaw and
Clinton McGhee planted 58,000 square feet of sod on the field last year. They
said it would be another year before they can eliminate any unevenness or
wrinkles in the field.
Sowell said even more difficult than working at the mercy of
the weather, especially freezing winter temperatures, is dealing with the
stress the field endures whenever there are several weekend games in a month.
The job is the hardest when we have three games in a row,
he said. We normally need 10 days between games.
Sowell is relieved, for example, the field doesnt have to
be ready for XFL games (a football league that folded 2 years ago), which
season extended from February until May.
While the first of eight 2002 college games at Liberty Bowl
including six Tiger games, the Southern Heritage Classic and the Liberty Bowl
will take place Saturday night, the kick-off to the new gridiron season was
initiated last weekend when four high school teams squared off over a 2-day
period that was rudely interrupted by thunderstorms.
People will wonder how we can get the field in top shape
(after rain), but sometimes we have to cut at night with the lights on because
it rained all day, he said.
McGhee said fans in the bleachers havent any idea of the
kind of work invested in providing Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium with a
beautiful field of grass.
Ordinary people dont understand that there is a lot of
work done to it, he said.
Sowell said some people think he can be fanatical about
making the field look its best. But if it is true, he said, it is only because
the crew takes pride in their final product.