Students get Beaver Stadium's turfgrass ready for the big game

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the Nittany Lions take the field for this year's Homecoming game on Oct. 8, Beaver Stadium spectators and television viewers alike will watch the team play on a vibrant, green athletic field, carefully manicured and painted with precision for its game-day glory.

What fans may not realize is that Penn State students are part of the pregame preparation needed to keep the grassy venue an impressive and resilient playing field. During each academic year, there are typically 10 to 15 students from Penn State's turfgrass science major putting their academic knowledge into play on the Beaver Stadium field. Working alongside the full-time athletic grounds crew, these part-time student workers are part of the turf maintenance team that keeps the field looking great for every game. 

"It's a big benefit to be able to hire turfgrass student workers for the stadium," said Nate Miller, assistant athletic fields supervisor for Penn State. "There's a whole training aspect to hiring someone who hasn't worked on a football field. These students come to us understanding things already."

The students on the stadium grounds crew participate in a wide variety of maintenance tasks, including mowing, seeding, aerating, fertilizing and repairing the turf. To prepare for a home game, crew members focus on general field maintenance early in the week and then turn their attention to painting and re-lining the field one to two times in the days leading up to the game. 

"Working at Beaver Stadium has really broadened our horizons," said Darek Eckley, of Milesburg, Pennsylvania, a junior turfgrass science student in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "I like how we're learning from one of the best grounds crews in the country — and we get to go to class in one of the best schools in the country for this program. It's the best of both worlds."

The fall football season is a busy time for Penn State's athletic grounds staff, with crew members assigned to several locations. The crew is responsible for maintaining not only the stadium field, but also the grass parking areas surrounding Beaver Stadium, and the many other collegiate sports fields, golf courses and intramural athletic fields located on campus. Students from the turfgrass program are trusted team members in fulfilling these responsibilities. 

"We have valuable mowers and equipment, so you don't want just anyone to operate them, you need someone competent," said Miller. "And with all the athletic acres that we have at Penn State, students are the eyes for a lot of the ground we cover. On any given week, a student worker may be one of the only people to look at the intramural fields from wall-to-wall, so if there's disease or another problem, we rely on them to relay that to us."

 
Turfgrass students inspect field

Turfgrass Science students (from left) Keith Salmon, Darek Eckley and Thomas Goyne inspect the Beaver Stadium playing field for divots and other imperfections.

Image: Michael Houtz, College of Agricultural Sciences
 

The work experience benefits both the University and the students, offering them ample opportunities to put their turfgrass studies into practice and to develop a better sense of their career goals. They also enjoy the added benefit of seeing an event like the upcoming Homecoming game with a whole new perspective as they keep tabs on the field. 

"I enjoy taking what we learn in class, bringing it to the stadium and seeing the real-life aspect, and also the opportunity to be around Penn State sports," said Keith Salmon, a senior turfgrass science major from Hammonton, New Jersey. "And game day is an incredible experience — it sends chills down your back. The student section is roaring, the guys run out of the tunnel, the 'We Are Penn State' chant is going, and we get to take it all in right from the sideline."

In addition to the pride they take in contributing to their school's athletic facilities, students on the stadium grounds crew say their experience has helped them shape their career goals and prepare for job options that call upon their practical experience and the science foundation they gain in their turfgrass classes. Turfgrass students also apply and enhance their knowledge through internships that often take them to professional athletic fields and turf facilities across the nation, preparing them for a diversity of careers. 

"I'm interested in sports, so I'd like to work for the NFL or MLB," said Thomas Goyne, of Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, a turfgrass science senior on the grounds crew. "As a student I've worked for the Philadelphia Eagles — their grounds crew includes Penn State turf grads, and those guys were on this crew at Beaver Stadium, so they learned from this system."

The students on the stadium grounds crew say they frequently meet graduates of the Penn State turfgrass program through their summer jobs and internships. 

"It's a big, yet small industry, in that everybody knows everybody. Students can tap into our alumni base," said Andy McNitt, professor of soil science and coordinator for the turfgrass science undergraduate program. "Turfgrass alumni look to us for interns because they get a motivated young student who wants to learn. There's also a very large demand for entrance-level turfgrass professionals in the sports and golf turf field. We have a long reputation of producing good students, so the degree is held in high regard."

Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences offers multiple turfgrass academic options including a bachelor's degree in turfgrass science and a two-year professional certificate program in golf course turfgrass management, both taught on campus. There are also five online study options: basic and advanced certificates in turfgrass management, associate and bachelor's degrees in turfgrass science, and a master of professional studies in turfgrass management. Graduates are employed in fields such as grounds management, golf course and athletic field maintenance, turf sales and service, sod production, and turfgrass research. 

At the upcoming Oct. 8 football game, Penn State will celebrate sports fans from all types of agricultural careers. The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Athletics are partnering to promote Pennsylvania's agricultural industry, with their second annual "Celebrate Agriculture" event during the Nittany Lions' Homecoming game against the Maryland Terrapins at Beaver Stadium. 

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Last Updated October 03, 2016