Working with uncertainty: Grounds crew’s work essential for the safety of student-athletes whenever they return

Orange & White Nation

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — While college sporting events remain paused and the timeframe for when seasons will start unknown, the grounds crew at the University of Tennessee continues to work–staying ready for when student-athletes can come back on campus and start gearing up for their respective seasons.

The crew works year-round, and the expectation for having the fields ready to be used does not change even during this unprecedented time. The maintenance of the natural grass fields is essential to a student-athlete’s safety.

Darren Seybold, the Director of Sports Surface Management, says if he and his crew were unable to work right now, they would be months behind on getting the fields ready for student-athletes to use for practice and games, as they would be unsafe.

“These facilities are major investments and ,with that, if we would’ve left them when school ended and they come up say July 1, ya know, the fields just aren’t safe,” he said.

Cain Clifton, an Athletic Grounds Foreman who works on the Haslam practice fields echoes the importance of maintaining the fields, especially when coaches get the “OK” for their teams to start practicing again.

“Because we don’t really know when things are going to get started back up from an athletic standpoint, we don’t want to fall behind,” Clifton says, “and hurting our players where they can’t show up and get better–these fields have to be ready for them to use for whenever we get that call, so it’s important that we’re here just like we would if they were practicing.”

Taking extra precautions

While the nature of landscaping keeps the workers fairly socially distanced, the grounds crew has been taking other precautions to keep them safe aligned with the CDC’s guidelines, such as:

  • Wearing masks
  • Wiping down carts
  • Assigning carts so only that specific person is using it
  • Modifying schedules to keep people apart

Player safety

While fans admire the iconic orange and white checkerboards that decorate each end zone at Neyland Stadium or the lush green grass at Regal Stadium marked with stripes, the main focus for the grounds crew is player safety.

Clifton says it’s important for the workers to keep the fields leveled and free of hazards; like divots in the ground made by a player’s knee braces, a sunken in-ground sprinkler system after heavy rain, random sink holes, and other bumps and holes in the field.

“The fans always look at the aesthetic part which is nice the stripes, the pretty and paint,” Seybold says. “But for us it’s the footing, you don’t want a player to get hurt or something because of the grass that’s always the major concern.”

Maintaining the fields is also an important factor when it comes to recruiting, especially Neyland Stadium where prospects are taken to on a part of their visit.

All of the fields at UT are comprised of natural grass except for Lindsey-Nelson Stadium and the indoor facilities. While students and student-athletes remain at home, Seybold says this time of uncertainty has been an “unfortunate benefit” for them as they are now at least a month ahead of where they normally would be during this time of year.

While the timeline for when sports can resume on campus remains unclear, Seybold says they are “staying ready.”

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