Allen Johnson, fields manager for the Green Bay Packers, doesn’t revel in the cool factor of his job. What motivates him is the responsibility the job brings, not the pomp
Not far from where he sits hangs a large framed photograph of a packed Lambeau Field on game day. It’s not lost on Johnson’s lunch guest that nobody knows that field better than he does.
The Packers, founded in 1919 and winners of 13 league championships (more than any NFL team), have sold out every home game at Lambeau Field since 1960. The field – where Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Brett Favre and other greats have played, and where legendary coach Vince Lombardi roamed the sidelines – is iconic.
While Johnson realizes the magnitude attached to his role as fields manager for the Packers, he doesn’t revel in the cool factor of the job. What motivates Johnson is the responsibility the job brings, not the pomp. He feeds on it like Packers’ legendary linebacker Ray Nitschke used to gorge on running backs during his 15-year career with the team.
“It’s a great job, but it doesn’t define me or make me special,” says the 42-year-old Johnson, who began his 17th year working for the Packers on July 1. “You should let your work ethic define you, not the place you work.”
Lombardi, who once said “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor,” would love this guy.
The work ethic
Johnson grew up on a small dairy farm in Bark River, Michigan, a rural area two hours north of Green Bay. He learned the value of hard work when he was a kid. Johnson also learned about responsibility at a young age. He remembers his dad teaching him how to drive a tractor when he was 9 years old.
“I was given a lot of responsibility when I was young,” Johnson says. “It was awesome for my confidence. It was a great way to grow up.”
Johnson joined the Army after graduating from high school. He fought in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm with an artillery unit. After four years of service, he returned home and attended Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, where he received a bachelor’s degree in public administration.
Like many college graduates, Johnson couldn’t find a job in his field. He took a job at a health insurance company in Green Bay to earn some money. For someone who didn’t like to be desk-bound, the job wasn’t a good fit. So every day at lunch Johnson visited the local employment agency to search for a different job.
One day he saw a job notice for a temporary construction worker at Lambeau Field. It offered outdoor work and more pay.
“The posting said to ‘See Steve in the construction trailer in the Lambeau Field parking lot,’ ” Johnson recalls.
Johnson headed to the Lambeau Field parking lot after work to find the construction trailer. He didn’t know it at the time, but Johnson was about to meet his mentor, Steve Hutchison, owner of American Sports Turf Systems, a Bedford, Texas-based company that builds sports fields around the country. Hutchison’s company was rebuilding Lambeau Field. He hired Johnson, who quit his insurance job the next day and reported to work at Lambeau Field.
Hutchison and his crew were rebuilding the field from the ground up, replacing the native soil with a sand-based root zone to improve drainage. Johnson enjoyed the work and absorbed as much knowledge as he could from Hutchison. He also asked to do tasks that temporary laborers normally didn’t do, such as operating equipment.
“He stood out so much,” Hutchison remembers. “It was like all the rest of them were in slow motion and he was in high gear. I quickly learned that I could give him more responsibility. He had energy and desire.”
Around the time Johnson’s temporary job was going to end, the Packers were looking for an assistant fields manager. Hutchison told Todd Edlebeck, who was the Packers fields manager at the time, that Johnson would be a good selection.
Edlebeck hired Johnson for the assistant position, and two years later Johnson was called into the front office and asked to succeed Edlebeck, who was named facilities manager. It was the kind of responsibility that Johnson, 27 at the time, longed for in a job. He embraced the chance to manage Lambeau Field, with all the responsibilities and pressure.
With the Packers’ blessing, Johnson enrolled in Penn State University’s online turfgrass program and earned an advanced certificate in turfgrass management. While Johnson reports to the director of stadium operations, he says his biggest bosses are the players.
“If they’re not happy [with the field], you won’t stay in this job,” he says.
About that hallowed ground
Johnson has three full-time workers and employs an intern in the summer. He and his staff also maintain two outdoor practice fields, an indoor practice field and the landscaping around the stadium.
At Lambeau Field, Johnson oversees not only hallowed ground, but high-tech ground as well. At Johnson’s recommendation, the field was rebuilt in 2007 with GrassMaster, a hybrid grass system from Desso Sports Systems. The system features 20 million artificial turf fibers about 0.75 inch apart in a natural grass mat. The natural grass roots intertwine with the 20-centimeter-deep injected artificial fibers. The result is a field with stable pitch, Johnson notes.
While the field’s turfgrass has been heralded for decades, the Packers play on new natural grass every year. Each spring Johnson and his staff mill or grind back the natural grass, reseed it heavily with a bluegrass blend and grow it in from scratch. The synthetic fibers are left intact.
Verti-Drain Softens the Field
Fenton, Mo.-based Redexim North America offers a variety of turf maintenance equipment, including aerators, seeders and topdressers.
Alan Johnson, fields manager for the Green Bay Packers, uses the Verti-Drain 7526 on Lambeau Field. “It’s the only way we can soften the field,” he says.
Johnson uses three-eighth-inch solid tines, which he says heave the rootzone slightly, allowing more oxygen to get to the roots. The cultural practice not only keeps the field soft, it keeps it safe.
Johnson does this so the natural grass doesn’t get too thick, which makes it slippery. A thatch layer can also form, which is not good for footing.
Lambeau Field has had an underground heating system for years, going back to an electric system that was used in the 1960s and 1970s during the Lombardi era. The goal was to keep the field from freezing so players could keep their footing. But in 1967, when the Packers played the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Championship, it was so cold that the heating system couldn’t function. The moisture on the field froze and turned into a sheet of ice, and the legend of the “frozen tundra” was born.
In 1997, a hydronic heating system was installed to maintain a constant and even temperature on the field. The system uses water and antifreeze to move heat where it’s needed.
A few years ago, Johnson implemented an artificial lighting system designed by Stadium Grow Lighting, a Dutch firm. Johnson uses the system, which features hundreds of greenhouse-type lightbulbs, 24 hours a day from October to early December to extend the growing season.
Johnson chuckles when asked about the legend of the frozen tundra, which some joke is a story frozen in time.
“The turf gets frozen when the season is over and we shut off the heating system,” he says. “Then it’s frozen tundra.”
Hybrid turfgrass could work on a golf course, but it’s not needed, Johnson adds. Golfers don’t have to push off a putting green like football players have to push off a field to gain leverage.
“The major reason to [implement this type of field] was to gain stability in the sand root zone so we can have the benefits of a well-draining playing surface regardless of weather,” Johnson explains.
If a consistent putting green is the goal of a superintendent to keep his clientele happy, a safe and playable field is the goal for Johnson and other NFL field managers.
Johnson watches games, but not like typical fans. He watches the way players make cuts on the field with their feet. He looks to see if they’re able to stop on a dime and change direction.
“I watch how the field plays,” he says. “When guys are making cuts to make tackles … that’s great-performing turf. I’ve watched a lot of feet over the years.”
Johnson takes any opportunity to educate the players about the field as it relates to footing. He says the current group of coaches and players are understanding and supportive of his goals.
While field performance and field safety are most important, Johnson also wants a good-looking field. But sometimes that’s not possible if lush green means good looking, because lush green can sometimes mean poor footing. Johnson makes no apologies, stressing that it’s vital that the field is safe.
“Our field may not look as pretty as other fields in the heart of winter, but it will perform very well and it will be safe,” Johnson adds.
Johnson’s job has much in common with golf course superintendents. He works many hours during the growing season and football season, and plenty of weekends, too. When the turf is growing and the season is underway, it’s not uncommon for Johnson and his staff to work 30 to 40 straight days without a day off.
It’s also important for Johnson to communicate well with co-workers, much like superintendents need to do so with golf pros.
“You have to have great rapport,” says Bryan Nehring, the Packers’ assistant equipment manager, noting that it’s vital that Johnson lets him know if he and his crew will be painting part of a field so Nehring knows to keep equipment and players away from the area. “You have to have open-door communication.”
While Poa annua is the bane of superintendents, it’s also the bane of sports field managers, says Johnson, who sits on the board of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA).
He and his crew pluck Poa by hand from Lambeau every spring when it’s growing in.
There are also issues with traffic, although the traffic on Lambeau Field is more intense than on most golf courses – picture a 300-pound offensive tackle blocking a 300-pound defensive tackle, their size-15 cleats anchoring their massive bodies and digging up turf like mini bulldozers.
“The biggest issue is they play football. If they didn’t play football, the field would be great all the time,” Johnson says with a laugh.
Sometimes when Johnson and his crew are mowing Lambeau and groups are filing through the stadium, tourists will ask for grass clippings to keep as souvenirs.
“It makes you realize that this is a big deal to people,” Johnson says.
It makes you realize that it’s a big deal to manage such hallowed turf.