At 7 a.m. on a college game day, 24-year-old John Wagnon sits atop a Toro lawn mower snaking across the field in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The grass is freshly cut under one-half of an inch, and Wagnon rides the mower back into its parking spot in “the barn” on the football practice field.
Now just one last rolling of white paint on the yard lines before noon kickoff. And maybe an orange touch-up on the Gator head.
Wagnon is the turf guy for the University of Florida.
His official title is turf groundskeeper II, but his co-workers call him “Wags.” To him, the turfgrass is as big of a deal as the Southeastern Conference football teams running on it.
An even bigger deal – winning field of the year. An award created by the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) with over a thousand applicants since its beginning in 1994.
It’s like winning the national championship but for turf guys, and for the first time in school history, Florida brought home the trophy. CEO of STMA Kim Heck said “The Swamp” won the STMA Field of the Year Award for collegiate football on Thursday for the 2014 season.
“It (the award) validates their knowledge and abilities to produce really great playing fields and that look absolutely beautiful for fans,” Heck said.
Since the award’s beginning in 1994, thousands of applicants have submitted the roughly 30-page application covering equipment, labor hours, budgeting, renovation, monthly maintenance schedules and photos validating their work.
“My second year here it feels pretty good to get that award,” Wagnon said. “With as low as our budget is, we can’t even sod every year.”
Since Wagnon started working two years ago, turf groundskeeper I Reggie Days said he’s added some of the techniques he acquired from interning with the Tennessee Titans on the LP Field.
From Monday morning through Friday afternoon, he and fellow groundskeepers are painting and re-painting the Gator logos and yard lines. An angry alligator portrait is the largest icon centered on the field but covers just over 5 percent of the 19,000 yards of grass.
Monday is measuring. Tuesday is stenciling. Wednesday is painting. Thursday and Friday are re-painting.
“It’s nice being outside and watching our artwork on TV each week,” Wagnon said. “These fields are our canvas. We’re just making a creation out of them.”
Before the artwork comes the mowing, with a $50,000 diesel-run Toro lawn mower. Wagnon and the grass guys mow the deep blue-green bermudagrass every morning before painting – twice a day on Fridays and Saturdays for home games. It helps roll in the painted pattern and make the designs stand out, he added.
“At a big university like this, most people look at color,” Wagnon said. “They just want to see a good orange and blue color.”
But the coaches aren’t looking at color, they’re looking at turf density.
No divots. No holes. No blow-outs. These are the expectations Wagnon and the grass guys have from the coaches, players and fans in the stadium and across the nation watching live on TV.
If the turf guys have issues with the grass, they reach out to Jason Kruse, an assistant professor of environmental horticulture at UF.
Seven years teaching at UF and 15 years in the turf industry, Kruse knows the science to a flawless field for game day.
“It all relies on a good, solid understanding of plant sociology, chemistry, soil physics,” Kruse said. “You have to be able to calibrate and apply your fertilizers and pest control products.”
But before Florida and before he learned the science of grass, Wagnon’s journey to turf began at 7 years old on his dad’s John Deere.
“I used to have to sit on a brick because I didn’t weigh enough,” said the 6-foot-3 Wagnon.
Sixteen years and a turf degree later, he received a job offer from UF turf coordinator Jason Smith.
Now in his second football season with Florida, Wagnon works alongside seven others on the field. Three of whom also hold degrees in turfgrass management.
Assistant turf coordinator Todd Campbell, 28, who has a few seasons on his John Deere over Wagnon, is one of his closest friends.
“There are times I might need to be picked up mentally,” he said. “I’ll be drained and he’ll say ‘Come on, let’s go. It’ll be all right.’”
UF senior Cory Graf is also finishing up his second season working the Florida Field with Wagnon.
“He works really hard. I watch what he does, and he gives me some tips,” Graf said. “Yells at me sometimes – ‘don’t spill paint on the field.’”
And when they’re not on the field mowing, they’re across the street drinking and talking turf.
Similar to a football team, the only focus for the turf crew is the next home game.
But Wagnon still dreams of greener grass on the other side.
One day he hopes to be the head grass guy at an Southeastern Conference school.
“I love seeing the results…,” he said. “I went to school for it, I have a passion for it and I love it.”