Painting the football landscape: Red Wing native part of grounds crew for Super Bowl LII
Republican Eagle sports reporter Kyle Stevens spoke with Red Wing native Brian Johnson, who is the Athletic Grounds Facilities Manager for Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. Johnson, who graduated from Red Wing High School in 1980, is back in his home state to help with field preparations at U.S.Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII. Below, Johnson reveals how he got the now-22 year job of painting grass and artificial turf for the biggest sporting event in the nation, if he's ever pulled a "CHEFS" and what it would mean to see the Vikings win their first Super Bowl.
RE: How did this happen, how did they get you to work for the NFL?
Johnson: Super Bowl XXX was at Sun Devil Stadium. The NFL has its own crew that comes in and works the game. The crew at that particular facility doesn't usually help out much. But that year in Arizona, they just needed some extra help. They came down early and saw me painting fields and liked my work and asked me if I wanted to help and I said sure. And, 22 years later, they've asked me back every year. It was the right place at the right time. And I've been fortunate to do some games in London and Mexico.
How did you get into this business?
I played baseball in high school, and I've always had a love of grounds keeping. I went to college in Mankato and got my recreation degree there, and my last semester I did an internship at ASU helping out at their athletic facilities. And when that internship was over, they had a full-time job open at their baseball facility, so I walked right into that job. And it's the only place that I've ever worked full-time my entire life. And even when I was the baseball guy there, I always came up and helped paint for football. It's just been a career that I happen to love and have caught some breaks along the way and here I am.
That's true in everything, right? Being in the right place at the right time?
It was the right place and time, but you have to be skilled enough. I could've been in that position and not been that good and they wouldn't have any interest in me. You have to create your own breaks and you need a few breaks.
What goes into grounds-keeping and painting? I think most people think mowing and laying down some paint.
Fortunately, the profession has become a lot more science-y. When I first started out, I didn't know very much. The kids that are becoming groundskeepers now know a lot more than when I started. There was a lot of trial and error on my part. But there are more schools with turf science programs where they learn about soil science and different elements and what fertilizers work in certain situations. It's keeping up with the science, but there is also an on-the-job training. It's not a glamorous job. We're usually the first in and the last to leave and sometimes it's not fun work that people enjoy.
How difficult is it, where in the '80s, you go from what it was then, to now where you're going to Arizona to London to Mexico and everywhere else, and all the soil is different and the grass is different, climates are different and figuring how paint reacts, how do you do it all?
We have a 20-25 person crew for the Super Bowl, and they come from all over the country. And we've had pretty much the same crew for a while, so we all know each other and so we run into some different circumstances where maybe it's cooler or drier, like in London, where it's a soccer pitch, we have to paint light so they can convert back to soccer when we're done. It's all something you pick up over time.
What's your favorite place you've been?
Well, it wasn't an NFL game. It was an upstart football league that was was trying to take hold in Taiwan. It was some very crude equipment on a very rough field. That was an interesting trip. But Super Bowl related, Super Bowl 43 was a favorite. The Cardinals were in it, and I'm a big Bruce Springsteen fan and he was the halftime act. That was one of my favorites. I've seen so many games over the years, that they all look alike. I kind of base my Super Bowl experience on the halftime shows. For instance, when we were in Miami, and Prince did the halftime show, I was right next to the stage and it was raining with the purple lights shining up. So he was singing "Purple Rain" in purple rain.
I guess that makes up for the long hours?
[Laughs] It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. But, it really is long days. Like, just the other day we were at the University of Minnesota doing some not glamorous work while the Vikings were winning the most exciting playoff game in history. And all I saw was the last minute, and I watched on my phone.
Was there a part of you thinking that it was a good thing the Eagles won so the Vikings would be on the road and you could get a head start on the field?
As a fan I was rooting for the Eagles to lose because it's probably better for the Vikings to host a game. But as far as preparing goes, it really helps that they're on the road. I was rooting for the Falcons, but my boss was obviously rooting for the Eagles.
When you found out Minnesota was going to host, what did you think?
I knew in one aspect that when we're in a different city I just go back to the apartment and eating dinner. Now I'm catching up with relatives I haven't seen in a while, or high school friends. Now I know how players feel when they play in their hometown and have the distractions. But it's nice to be back. I've been in Arizona since 1984, and I choose not to come back too often in the winter. But it's coming back to me. I was getting out of the van the other day and I turned with the slide (on the ice) and walking backward into the wind to give my face a break. But it's good to be back. It's cool.
The first question I thought of when I got the message about your story was about the "CHEFS" Snickers commercial...
[Laughs] Oh, yeah. But, I've never misspelled a word. But over the years we've had situations where someone painted the hash marks on the wrong side of the string, and one time we had a tape measure have two 165-foot marks on it. It went 165, 165, 167, so one time our line was a foot off. So we fixed that and threw the tape measure out.
What the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome in an NFL or college setting?
For 18 years we had the Cardinals play at ASU, so we'd painting and play a college game on Saturday and the game would be over at 11 p.m. and we'd have to stay all night and paint for the Cardinals game the next day. And there's the Fiesta Bowl, I've prepared a number of bowl games and national championships, and so we'd have Fiesta Bowls one day and the Cardinals the next day. Now that the Cardinals have their own stadium, I look back and wonder how we did it, 40 hours on the weekend and then back to a regular week on Monday.
Is it easier working on artificial turf than on grass?
I think every groundskeeper would like every game on grass. Even though that means re-sodding and seeding and fertilizing and mowing and irrigating and, if it rains, tarping it. But even with all those, we'd take grass. On turf, you're not doing all that, but you have to be more precise the first time so there are no mistakes. But this is a beautiful stadium, and the turf is great. There are instances where you have to do turf and this is one of them.
Well, imagine being outside on Super Bowl Sunday.
[Laughs] No. No. I can't even.
What happens when you're on the sideline and the Vikings are there raising the trophy?
I might get a tear in my eye. I so hope they do it. Let me tell you a story, not that I deserve it. I was a huge Vikings and Twins fan, and I kind of lost track of the Vikings over the years. But I'm still a huge Twins fan. I saw a lot of bad baseball in the '70s when I was a kid. I moved to Arizona in '84, and then they win the World Series in '87 and '91 and I had to watch it on TV. And so I'm watching all these young people, in the Metrodome, watching them win. And I kept looking at the screen saying, 'That should be me. I deserve to be there. I watched them when they stunk and now these people get to see them win?' It would be a little bit of a redemption for me.
Kyle received the following email, which made him actually laugh out loud.
From Jeff Shelstad:
Great article on Brian Johnson, a childhood friend. One correction though: Brian did indeed have a "Chefs" moment. Brian and I grew up in the neighborhood (of) Birchwood. Our home baseball field was The Pit, and true to his current profession, Brian was always the guy who got to the field early to get the bases ready, lay the chalk, etc. Our league consisted of Birchwood, Woodland, Jefferson and the Pottery. We were hosting the championship game one summer, and Brian said he would get there real early as he wanted to paint “BIRCHWOOD” on our wooden, beat-up picket fence in right field to get it ready for the big game. When Jay Tauer and I arrived to warm up, Brian was already on the second "O," but had left out the "C" and the "H". From that point forward we were Birwood.