East Greenwich’s Leonard loves keeping Eagles’ grass green

Assistant Groundskeeper Mitch Tracey, Assistant Landscape Manager Erich Weichelt and Director of Grounds Tony Leonard, of East Greenwich, paint the lines on the practice fields at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia last month. -- Photo Courtesy of Delaware County Daily Times photographer ERIC HARTLINE
Assistant Groundskeeper Mitch Tracey, Assistant Landscape Manager Erich Weichelt and Director of Grounds Tony Leonard, of East Greenwich, paint the lines on the practice fields at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia last month.
— Photo Courtesy of Delaware County Daily Times photographer ERIC HARTLINE

By Jeff Wolfe

It probably doesn’t bother East Greenwich resident Tony Leonard if people see what his lawn looks like.

After all, the grass he maintains for his occupation is seen and sometimes examined by thousands when the Philadelphia Eagles play a home game. Leonard, a Mickleton resident, has been the director of grounds at Lincoln Financial Field since it opened in 2003.

So, while maybe you’ve become accustomed to mowing some extra grass during what was an abnormally wet summer, dealing with the Bermuda grass at Lincoln Financial Field and the teams’ practice fields at the NovaCare Complex is pretty much what Leonard’s life revolves around, especially once spring hits.

“Typically we try to mow it four or five times a week,” Leonard said. “The Bermuda grass does grow very quickly and it’s maintained in such a way that it has to be mowed a lot.”

But unlike many who dread the task of keeping the grass in their yard at an appropriate height, Leonard and his crew do their job with careful thought and planning. Everything is done with a reason, especially for such a high profile situation.

“We start preparing for the next game as soon as the clock hits zero, whether it’s the next day, a week away or two weeks away,” Leonard said. “We never have time to let it rest. We have to always be on it. We are filling divots and repairing any worn areas. We even have growth blankets which act as a greenhouse for the grass.”

And when it comes to needing something, or implementing the latest technology, Leonard said he and his crew have the full support of Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.

“We work for an organization that’s been top notch and never questioned why we do things,” Leonard said. “Mr. Lurie and the front office have always given us the tools to make our job successful.”

An obvious reason that is important is because the grass surface the Eagles play on can be essential to success. When quarterback Michael Vick, running back LeSean McCoy or wide receiver DeSean Jackson plant one foot in order to make a cut to avoid defenders, they need to do so with the confidence that the turf under them will offer plenty of support.

“With the players, you can have $200 million worth of athletes on the field on any given Sunday,” Leonard said. “The fans pay to see those guys make those cuts. I sit and watch it and it’s fun when they can play like that.”

Leonard says the Bermuda grass has worked out ideally for the players.

“It takes the heat and humidity better and we can mow it shorter,” said Leonard, who has four other full-time workers on his staff and also two interns that help on game days. “Players prefer to be on that grass. If it’s shorter it appears to be a little faster. And through research, they are coming up with more Bermuda grass that is conducive to this area. It gives us flexibility to do concerts and have it recover.”

Leonard and his staff did their share of research before installing the Bermuda grass at Lincoln Financial Field.

“We looked at Pittsburgh and the Grassmaster system they have there and we installed it here,” Leonard said. “Then we looked at Denver, and even though it’s sunny 300 days out of the year there, they may get 10 or 12 inches of snow, too. They have weather issues there at times and it is somewhat conducive to growing grass out there.”

Leonard admits too that he is the team’s unofficial weatherman. He needs to know if the field absolutely has to be covered when it is idle and the field staff is not present.

“I’m our in-house meteorologist,” Leonard said. “The NFL has a rule that you have to have a tarp on the field if rain is expected in a 24-hour time frame. We know our field the best and if we see that rain is about three days out, we may tarp it depending on the time of year.”

What can also make Leonard’s situation somewhat more challenging is that Lincoln Financial Field isn’t just home to the Eagles, but also to Temple University’s football team.

Sometimes that means two football games in two days. Then throw in the occasional concert, such as two Taylor Swift concerts this summer, and maybe even a Monster Truck show, which involved putting boards on the field before bringing in dirt for the trucks to run on, there’s plenty of turf issues to deal with.

“Our planning starts in the spring time for the field,” Leonard said. “Of course, being a high-profile city, we are attractive to other events like lacrosse, Kenny Chesney was here, and we have international soccer sometimes, too. We have to look at all of those events and see how it is going to affect the field.

“After having two Taylor Swift concerts, and then our first practice on the field on July 28, we thought it was best to re-sod the field following Taylor Swift. Every year is different with a different set of challenges and issues.”

Leonard said the old sod was removed before the Swift’s concerts. Once the concert equipment was gone, that allowed the new sod to be put down with ease. The Eagles buy sod from either the Tuckahoe Turf Farm in South Jersey or Carolina Green Sod in North Carolina. He says they have agreements with those companies to grow the exact type of sod and grass they want and it’s usually ordered about a year-and-a-half in advance.

“We look at the Temple schedule and the Eagles schedule and they usually come out about the same time (in late March or early April),” Leonard said. “Within 24 hours of the NFL schedule coming out, we call our sod farm. Usually we can tell in April when we will have to re-sod the field.”

When the sod trucks arrive, it takes about 20 semi-truck loads to complete the Lincoln Financial Field job. Each roll of sod is 30 feet long and four feet wide and about two inches thick. Leonard says each roll weighs about a ton. And it takes a while to grow it as well.

“Right now we have grass growing for next season,” Leonard said. “It’s not your normal type of sod that your homeowner can purchase.”

But while the normal homeowner is relieved of lawn duties after the first frost hits, usually sometime in October, that’s not the case with Leonard and his crew. Lincoln Financial Field has a heating system under the sod that doesn’t allow it to freeze.

“There is always new technology coming about and we try to stay on top of that,” said Leonard, who added there are 28 miles of heat pipe under and around Lincoln Financial Field.

But Leonard says the heating system can get a bit tricky in the winter because the field can’t be too soft or too hard.

“It’s not designed to melt snow,” Leonard said, “but it does keep the grass green and it does allow it to recover in the winter months and to not keep the field frozen. We like to soften it enough to take out the factor of a player hitting his head on a frozen field. If we can do that, that’s a big benefit.”

Leonard says the other benefit is working with an experienced staff. He says he doesn’t have to give much direction, especially during the season when preparation for the next game starts as soon as the clock hits zero for the current game.

“I have a great staff,” he said. “They’ve been around a long time and understand what all needs to be done. They know when it’s time to go and they do an awesome job.”

Leonard graduated from Penn State in 1997 and then was hired full-time by the Eagles when they opened the NovaCare Complex in 2000.

“It’s awesome and quite an opportunity,” said Leonard of his time with the Eagles. “With our team here, this is one of the best jobs you can have.”

Tony Leonard speaks with Philadelphia Eagles reporter Dave Spadaro at Lincoln Financial Field.
Tony Leonard speaks with Philadelphia Eagles reporter Dave Spadaro at Lincoln Financial Field.
Tony Leonard, right, and Eagles staffers Denise and Elsie Gallagher take a break after working on a landscaping project.
Tony Leonard, right, and Eagles staffers Denise and Elsie Gallagher take a break after working on a landscaping project.

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