A 20-by-40-foot strip of turf is all that’s missing from the Clover Memorial Stadium field at the moment.
By January it will be one of the few reminders of the facility’s playing surface. The other is a national award that the group who maintain the field recently won. Will Rogers and a devoted crew of Clover School District employees were awarded the prize of top football field in the schools and parks division by the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA).
“It’s a big deal,” said Rogers. “We may not ever win it again, so we want to enjoy it while we’re a national field.”
The timing of the award is ironic. In several weeks, the Bermuda grass at Clover Memorial Stadium will be clawed up and replaced with synthetic turf, part of a bond referendum that voters passed last March that should save the school district a pile of money in maintenance costs in the long-run.
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The school district acts on the public’s vote, and the district employees do what they’re told. But that doesn’t mean the men who carefully shaped and manicured Clover Memorial Stadium’s fine patch of Tifway 419 Bermuda grass don’t have an attachment to the surface that will soon be replaced.
Frank Falls said Monday morning that returning to the field felt like being asked to identify a deceased relative. Falls has cut the stadium grass since 1996, a two-hour process he’ll sorely miss. He’d slip on his head phones and forget the world for about 120 minutes.
Falls, who teaches economics at Clover High School, said he enjoyed “The solitude of it. Just staring off into space. Just put your headphones and cut; just you and the field.”
With the new synthetic surface, that connection - to the football field at least - will be gone.
“When you can put fertilizer on it and green it up, you know it’s living then. You can see the results,” said Lee Clinton, a Clover School District sports turf superintendent. “Synthetic, it’ll be there.”
Falls’ feelings about the stadium’s playing surface and his role in maintaining it were captured poignantly in part of the crew’s submission to the STMA that helped win the national award.
“To say that we love Clover Memorial Stadium would be an understatement,” Falls wrote. “She is what is right and good about our profession. She is a living creature, and when she goes away, a part of us will die with her. She has been a blessing to everyone who has played on her, and especially the ones of us who have been privileged to work on her.”
The crew worked on the field year-round for soccer and lacrosse. But fall football, when most of the town of Clover would come to Memorial Stadium to watch the Blue Eagles play, was the group’s time to shine.
They cut the field every day from June until the season started, including the weekends, and then about four times a week during the season, until the grass growth slowed. There was also painting and lining to be done by assistant coaches and Dean McCarter, another district maintenance employee. It was about 25 to 30 hours of work per week, for three hours of showing off.
The relationship with the grass, a living thing, was precious, and the crew’s impact on the field was visible, whether good or bad. Two years back, the crew didn’t spray it’s rye grass out when it should have - due to orders from elsewhere. The field’s Bermuda grass, which doesn’t thrive in the presence of rye, was brown in June when it should have been its most verdant.
“We had July and about three weeks in August to get it green,” said Rogers. “We put more nitrogen on it than the law allowed...”
“Literally,” added Jim Funderburk, the Clover School District’s maintenance director.
“If you would have saw it in July, you would have said, ‘they’re gonna run everybody off!’,” remembered Rogers.
They didn’t get it fully green and had to put down sod in certain stubborn sections, but disaster was largely averted.
“Everybody that rode by here had to stop and ask us about it,” Rogers said, chuckling.
But when the field did look good, an emerald sea sat between two silver shores of metal bleachers. And it almost always looked good.
“That’s why we did what we did,” said Rogers. “We knew the community liked what was going on and when they got here, they let us know how good they thought the field looked. It was rewarding.”
Clover School District has 18 total maintenance employees, all of whom help out at some point with the district’s 32 total acres of athletic fields.
“We enjoy working on the turf,” said Rogers. “We’re gonna miss that part of it, but also do what they want us to do.”
After the sod and roots and soil are dug up and removed, drain pipes, crushed stone, gravel, a concrete pad and the layer of rubber pellets will go down before the sections of synthetic turf are laid.
The synthetic turf manufacturer gave a 30-minute presentation to the maintenance crew on how to take care of the surface, and several crew members traveled to a conference in San Antonio last year to learn more about the artificial grass. But there isn’t near as much to the job. The synthetic surface’s upkeep revolves around sweeping clear the tiny black rubber pellets that kick up when people run on the field.
“It’s not maintenance-free; there’s still stuff to do there, but it’ll be a lot less pressure,” said Clinton.
There will be one last celebration of Clover Memorial Stadium’s two-acre patch of Bermuda grass. The school district is flying four of the crew out to Denver in January for the STMA’s annual conference, where they will accept their award and explain the Clover Memorial Stadium turf management plan. It’s a topic they’re happy to discuss.
“Our goal is to give our student-athletes the best fields to play on,” said Funderburk. “Our kids deserve to know they have the best fields.”
Only six South Carolina groups or individuals have ever won national STMA awards, and Clover is the first South Carolina football playing surface in any of the three categories - pros, colleges/universities, and schools and parks - to claim the top prize.
The Clover bunch has won locally, though. Through the state chapter of STMA, the group has won the best football playing surface in the state four out of the last five years, and also the best softball surface the last two years.
Those awards are the other tangible result of the hours spent poring over the fields. Clover Memorial Stadium’s surface won’t require such an effort once it goes synthetic, but sixteen other fields in the school district will, and the high school football field’s loss is those fields’ gain.
Besides the STMA national award, the turf management crew will also have the 20-by-40 keepsake strip of turf from Memorial Stadium, a facility that’s had a natural grass playing surface since 1948.
“We moved it, that way if we ever do put this back to grass, we can put it back,” said Clinton. “That one section anyway. A cornerstone, I guess.”