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VOL. 116 | NO. 169 | Friday, August 30, 2002

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One hundred yards of picturesque grass equals more than a thousand memories to John Sowell

Sowells pride


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 42-year-old field.

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.

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