Inside the six-day mad dash to make Tennessee’s field playable after an epic party

    Dave Wilson is an editor for ESPN.com since 2010. He previously worked at The Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune and Las Vegas Sun.

Amid the jubilation, exuberance and general madness after Tennessee beat Alabama for the first time in 16 years last Saturday, one man stood in Neyland Stadium waiting on what loomed for him in the aftermath.

Darren Seybold grew up in Alabama. He knew what a life-changing event it was for Vols fans to see their team take down the Tide. So as he stood watching tens of thousands of Tennessee fans storm the field for the first time since 1998, he wasn’t surprised.

“That’s a storied program that has won a lot in the last 12 years. We haven’t,” Seybold said. “Everybody thinks [the big rivalry] is Tennessee-Florida, but it’s really not. It’s Tennessee and Alabama. I’m from there, I know. This was a big win. I mean, first time in 16 years, you knew it was coming right there. You can’t stop it. You just gotta let it go.”

Seybold understood the hysteria. But that doesn’t mean he had to like it. Because as the director of sports surface management for the Vols, this was his work under siege. He has overseen all the playing surfaces for Tennessee athletics, and has spent 12 years in Knoxville, but this was a once-in-a-quarter-century event. The goalposts? Gone, dunked into the Tennessee River. The school was fined $100,000 by the SEC for fans entering the field, which was littered with garbage, a plot of turf meant for 22 players instead mashed by thousands of delirious fans.

Tennessee put out a lighthearted plea for a crowdfunded replacement for the goalposts immediately after the game. But Seybold said he already had it under control thanks to years of watching and talking to other guys in his position of what to expect on Saturday. Turf managers live a behind-the-scenes life, and it’s a close-knit fraternity in the business.

“I probably heard from 90% of the SEC guys,” Seybold said. “The goalposts coming down, you kind of expect it. So we already had a set-up and ready to go. We’ve been bad for so long that we watched a lot of goalposts come down in the 12 years that I’ve been here from afar. You just kind of learn from everybody like, all right, man, this is what you’re in for.”

He said he was flooded with congratulatory texts from across the country. “Then obviously, some were saying like, ‘Dang, man, nobody likes to see grass torn up anywhere,'” Seybold said. “Most of these guys have been through it.”

The celebration scenes dominated social media, but one in particular got the attention of his colleagues. There was a woman ripping up a huge chunk from the Vols’ trademark checkerboard in the end zone at Neyland Stadium. It inspired a fellow field manager at Oklahoma to consider his own reaction, saying, “If this happens to me, I’ll need bail money.”

So how did Seybold pull off a flawless field for a home game against UT-Martin with a noon kickoff Saturday, after it was trashed just a week prior?

“You’re going from the highs of beating Alabama that you hadn’t done in 16 years to playing an [FCS] team,” Seybold said. “But our fan base, buddy, they don’t care if we’re playing a high school.”

Seybold and his staff did it with the whole shed of lawn implements. We’re talking aerators, fertilizers, mowers, blowers and Shop-Vacs to vacuum the grass. A lot of vacuuming grass. Because when Tennessee beats Alabama, there’s a unique challenge after the crowd spills onto the field.

“When you first see all the cigars you’re like, what is all that? They got dropped, but then they got shredded. So we had all this tobacco laying everywhere,” Seybold said of the celebratory cigars the winners of the rivalry always smoke, in a thick Alabama accent. “But between shoes and cigar tubes … we couldn’t get over the amount of clothes. OK, what’d you do, walk out of here nekkid?”

Maybe so, because there was ample evidence that not many of those glass cigar tubes went home on anyone’s person.

Dr. John Sorochan, a distinguished professor of turfgrass science in the Department of Plant Sciences at Tennessee, witnessed the wreckage first-hand. Sorochan, a go-to consultant for the NFL Players Association for inspecting field safety at neutral-site games, like in London, happens to run an esteemed center for athletic field safety on campus in Knoxville, so he went to see the aftermath for himself.

“I went there and I literally picked up seven heaping handfuls of broken glass from the cigar tubes and cigar caps,” Sorochan said. “It was crazy.”

Seybold said his staff — Bryan Ogle, William Barnett, Cain Clifton, Marty Wallace, Brandon Frazier — all went out and walked the field, inch by inch, because a player getting cut was their biggest fear.

“We got six backpack blowers and we blew the entire field off by hand,” Seybold said. “Anytime we found a patch of glass, we’d flag it. Then we came back with Shop-Vacs and sucked up all the glass.”

Besides glass and clothes, there were a few other surprises. Apparently, the Vols are so cool, they wear their sunglasses at night. Well, wore.

“We were amazed,” Seybold said. “I’m telling you, Costa Del Mar, Oakley and Maui Jim. … I guarantee they had a lot of profits in Knoxville this week because we found a lot of ’em just smashed, lenses gone. Every time you pick up a frame, that’s $200. I’m like dang guys, this is adding up quick.”

Sorochan offered up his own surprise.

“They found a whole bottle, a big handle of Buffalo Trace bourbon that was empty,” he said. “Someone got that into the stadium somehow.”

The trash was one thing (the field crew stayed until about 2 a.m. cleaning up garbage). Then the real work started to get the green stuff growing again. His biggest concern was that the field is sand based underneath the turf, so he was worried about how compacted the surface would be by all those fans.

Sorochan has a doctorate, so we’ll let him do the calculations on how many of the 101,915 in attendance that day made their way down.

“It was shoulder to shoulder, and the average person is probably about one and a half square feet,” he said. “So there were probably 50,000 people on the field.”

There was also the matter of the agronomic catastrophe inflicted by fans looking to take home their own souvenir pieces of the field. Seybold said they know who the fan was who was helping herself to pieces of the checkerboard, even if he didn’t want to nark her out to a reporter. Several eBay listings soon popped up, with Neyland grass fetching anywhere from $3 for a few sprigs to more than $100 for one listing with an image of a fan holding up a picture of the grass with the field in the background.

“One thing about Tennessee fans, buddy, you don’t want to get on their wrong side,” Seybold said. “They’ve already found out who she is. Supposedly her answer was she did this in ’98 [when the Vols upset No. 2 Florida]. And that we had extra grass laying around anyway. I guess if that makes you sleep at night, we’ll go with that story.”

He didn’t have it lying around. But he knew who did. Seybold called in Carolina Green, a Charlotte company that specializes in athletic sod and sometimes will re-sod entire NFL fields in the middle of a season.

“It comes in big rolls and one big roll can weigh over 2,000 pounds,” Sorochan said. “But the small area that they patched, that piece will weigh about 80 pounds, maybe 100 pounds, and it’s really thick — probably an inch and three quarter thick piece of sod — and they put it in really tight that even a 300-pound football player running and stomping on it won’t dislodge it or pick it up.”

Sorochan is a grass guy. So he doesn’t see the appeal of taking that specific plot of turf home, getting into the, uh, weeds to explain why.

“It’s Latitude 36 Bermuda grass, overseeded with a perennial ryegrass — a cool-season grass,” Sorochan said. “You could go take it home and grow it, but it’s just Bermuda grass. You could buy it anywhere.”

But we know that doesn’t matter. The grass at Home Depot didn’t come from the same patch of sacred sod where Josh Heupel had just vanquished Nick Saban.

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James Bergdoll is the director of park maintenance for the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is the current president of the Sports Field Management Association. He noted that he’s a Purdue grad who didn’t quite understand this level of obsession, coming from Big Ten country. He had sympathy for his fellow field managers across the state.

“It goes to a whole different level down in this part of the country, and it’s wild to see them do that,” Bergdoll said. “They’re seeing this as an opportunity to say, ‘Yeah, man, I was on the field when we beat Alabama for the first time in [16 years] and here’s a piece of the grass that came up from the field.’ You want the team to win and do well but in the end, for the fans to do what they’ve been doing at the cost of all that work that gets put into it, that’s a hard pill to swallow for anybody.”

But the Vols’ field crew made it look seamless. It was a week-long effort. Seybold said he started on the grass on Saturday night, spraying fertilizer.

On Sunday, his crew came back with the blowers to get it clean, then “aerified it, to get as much compaction off it as we could,” Seybold said. They covered the field — they’re called growth blankets in the business — on Monday, because the temperature didn’t get above 36 degrees Tuesday after a cold front moved in. They spent that Tuesday putting in the new goalposts they had painted the day before. On Wednesday, they sprayed more fertilizer, started painting the field and finished up the paint job Thursday. On Saturday, they kicked off at noon, checkerboards intact and a lush, green, glass-free field ready for a 65-24 win over the Skyhawks.

Seybold is fine with a wild week, as long as it happens only every 25 years or so. He said seeing Clemson fans on the field after every game would get old really fast for him. “If we beat UT-Martin and they stormed the field, we’d be like, ‘Come on everybody, what are we doing? Let’s be smart,'” Seybold said. “I’ve been proud of our fans. Six years ago, we beat Florida for the first time in 10 years, then beat them again this year for the first time since then and they didn’t rush it either.”

Now that it’s over, he can exhale. Even if he’s uncomfortable with the attention.

“I don’t want anybody to know my name to be honest,” Seybold said. “If they know my name, there’s a problem. Nobody knows it unless something bad happens.”

And Seybold can be proud that nobody knew his name this weekend.

“You figure, bud, in ’98 and 2022, I mean, that’s what, a 24-year difference?” he said. “We’ll take the $100,000 fine and move on.”

Sorochan doesn’t think there will be a reprise anytime soon because the Vols are back and can expect to win.

“They won’t be rushing the field anymore because it will go back to what it used to be in the heydays of the ’90s and early 2000s,” Sorochan said.

Just like that, the grass is greener at Neyland again.

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