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Q&A: Peoria groundskeeper Reno discusses his ‘Super’ side hustle

220302 Mike Reno at SB.jpg
Photo courtesy Mike Reno
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Peoria Chiefs/Dozer Park groundskeeper Mike Reno worked on the Super Bowl LVI grounds crew last month in Los Angeles. Over the past 20 years, Reno has had the opportunity to work several Super Bowls.

Mike Reno recently returned to Peoria from an important business trip to Los Angeles. But this was not your ordinary business trip, as the work he contributed to was observed by millions of people around the world.

Reno is the head groundskeeper at Dozer Park, home of the Peoria Chiefs and Bradley University baseball teams. Last month, he served on the grounds crew for Super Bowl LVI at So-Fi Stadium, where the Rams won the title on their home field.

Over the past two decades, Reno has had the opportunity to work several Super Bowls. In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Reno discusses his Super Bowl experiences, what the work entails, and how things went this year in California.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Joe Deacon: What can you tell us about your recent business trip to Los Angeles and why you were out there?

Mike Reno: It was warm; it was 70 degrees every day. It worked smoothly. There was an inlaid field; usually we have to paint grass or if it's a sports turf field, artificial, we usually have to paint lines or some extra stuff on the field. But everything was inlaid, everything was sewn in, except for the logo. So it was a pretty simple, easy trip this year.

This isn't your first Super Bowl, from what I understand. How many Super Bowls Have you been to, and how did this opportunity come about?

Reno: It's somewhere 15, 16; I can't remember exactly. I took a few years off here and there because of school, but I started in (the) 2002 Super Bowl, so the 2001 season, in New Orleans, that was my first one. I just kind of got picked up along the way; as they go from stadium to stadium, they pick up people. My bosses got picked up before me, and they recruited me on the crew.

How soon before the Super Bowl do you have to get to the host city, and how long do you wind up staying?

Reno: It all depends on how difficult the situation is, and as I said, this year was pretty simple. So I was only required to come 3½ weeks early, but I actually got that Omicron right before so that held me back a little bit. So I only came I think three weeks before this year, and then I stay a couple days afterwards.

So what all goes into working the grounds crew for a Super Bowl? What are your responsibilities?

Reno: We have to take care of all the playing surfaces and any extra events that the NFL has out there that involves like a playing surface. So we do the practice fields, and we do “NFL Experience” – they have a couple of little fields there at the convention centers every year, and we get those ready too.

What kinds of challenges do the large-scale halftime shows present from a field maintenance perspective?

Reno: Yeah, that's the main problem. The halftime show is the most important part; from being there and watching this every year, it shows me that the NFL, their goal is to make the (Super Bowl) halftime show a big deal and very successful. So they have production companies take care of the planning and everything.

They rehearse, like, a week, sometimes a week and a couple of days before the Super Bowl. So we usually can't really work on the field very much during that last week before the Super Bowl, and then usually we get Saturday or a portion of Saturday, depending on if the teams practice or walkthrough. So we usually get a portion of Saturday, or Saturday to do our final (paint) coats on the field.

And the halftime show stages are usually very expensive and heavy. They do a good job and trying to prevent damage, but there's only so much you can do with you know that much weight and that many people running out on the field. If it's an artificial field, all we have to worry about is the paint getting screwed up; we have covers we put down beforehand, but still those tires get turned and moved around and stepped on (and) the paint kind of crumbles off the leaf blade.

But if it's a natural grass field, like what's going to be next year (at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.), then it's a major problem, because the wheels rut the ground. In Arizona, they're going to all come off of one entryway onto the field, and that usually compacts the ground. And that usually also ruts it, like I said, and the paint comes off the leaf of the grass blade easier than it does an artificial blade. So there's a lot of touching up afterwards that has to be done as well.

Are there any of the Super Bowls that you've worked that stand out in your memory, as far as the games, or the stadium and field, or the halftime?

Reno: I mean, every year it's nicer. The stadiums are – you know, they started really putting money into stadiums 10-15 years ago. So, I don't know if you've ever been to St. Louis (The Dome at America’s Center, formerly the Edward Jones Dome), but that was one of the last bare bones stadiums that they built; there may be a couple more after that I'm missing out. But that was just basically a warehouse with a football field.

Now the stadiums they’re building are, they're magnificent. They're beautiful, and the architecture is great. They're trying to make fans enjoy themselves not just watching the game, but being at the stadium itself, and they're very successful in that now.

SoFi Stadium is, it's ridiculous; I've never been any place like that, how nice it is inside and how accommodating it is to not just the fans but the actual working people. They have a loading dock there that you can turn an 18-wheeler (around) underneath the stadium, underneath the stands. It's ridiculous.

Did I see that there was a little bit of a logo paint coloring issue that you kind of had to help solve this year?

Reno: Every year, the logo changes, and for five years, they did kind of like shading of the trophy. We painted that – that wasn't me that painted that – but it was a pain. It was a lot of work and it didn't translate like it does on paper. On white paper, you can see all that shading and it's easy to see the contrast and everything.

But when you put that not only on a green color, but you're using not opaque colors, you're using like orange and red, those paints aren't on a white base, those are paints are on a clear base. So you're putting a clear base with a slight color hue on to a green color, and it doesn't make orange it makes like a greenish orange.And then the factor of rubber, black rubber is in there, and then you got shading from the light hitting the grass, it just – red and orange, you can't really tell a difference of them very well unless you really get up on it.

So we decided to do an undercoat of white just on the orange and that made the orange pop really well, and you could see the contrast. Everybody was really happy with it; we got a few comments from NBC camera people saying how nice it looks. So it was rewarding at the end.

What are the differences in working a Super Bowl grounds crew and maintaining a baseball diamond at Dozer Park?

Reno: It's pretty different. Obviously, minor league baseball compared to almost every country in the world watching. You can make mistakes on a minor league field and only that many people that are watching the game, which is not always the highest number, will see it. I could burn a spot in my grass in right field, which I've done before, and maybe 1,000 people saw it that week.

In the Super Bowl field, I feel my boss Ed Mangan, he's the Atlanta Braves head groundskeeper, he's got a lot of stress during those 3-4 weeks. A lot of people don't understand, they’re like “Oh man, I’d love to have his job.” I always tell them, “No, you don't want that job,” because that guy's losing sleep every night and his stress level is very high.

So I would say stress, and responsibility. You’ve got players that could get hurt, and you're on an artificial field, you're more likely to have some injured players on that just because of the nature of that surface. So his stress level’s on all different wavelengths.

How many people are usually on a Super Bowl grounds crew?

Reno: Around 30, plus or minus; you know, it depends. This year was a lower count because, as I stated before, it's less work this year. But it could be 40 people; it could be 30, 28, somewhere around there. They're all from different backgrounds; I'd say 70%, 80% are from the NFL, like working for an NFL team right now. Then a lot of us have worked for NFL teams in the past and that's how we got on and just kept on coming.

So you have worked for NFL teams in the past?

Reno: Yeah, I worked for the Arizona State University Sun Devil Stadium, and we had the Cardinals play there. Then I did an internship (with the Washington NFL team), and then I worked for the Dolphins and the Marlins and (University of) Miami Hurricanes at what is now Hard Rock Stadium; it was Dolphins Stadium when I was there.

What brought you to Peoria?

Reno: My wife works for Caterpillar. We met in Miami and when we lived there, her Miami lab – she worked for a laboratory there – got shut down and they moved her to Peoria, and we decided to follow her career.

So with the Bradley baseball season coming up soon and the Chiefs starting shortly thereafter, what kinds of work do you have to do now to make sure the field is ready after the winter?

Reno: Well, you got to give the grass something to wake up, because it wants to take its time. The variety of grass we have is a variety that's really good for the fall; it tends to go to sleep very late in the season where some fields, they may be yellowing up and whiting out. Not a lot of growth going on in November or even December, and we could still be green in December. So I think the variety was opposite of what they should have chosen a long time ago.

But, so we wake up late so I have to kick-start the grass a little bit with something kind of like a steroid shot. Then after I do that, it's just getting edges. There's a lot of heaving that goes on up here, so from all that ice and cold weather, the dirt tends to heave up. So you got to wait till the dirt dries out enough and then you can start working it and rolling it and doing edges so the edges are flat and consistent to the grass level as well.

So how soon before the opening days do you have to start that process?

Reno: It all depends on the weather. Some years, it's earlier; it seems like it's been getting earlier and earlier. I've been doing this in Peoria for like 11 years and it seems like it's happening a little sooner. So I'll probably get on the field working on the dirt usually around early March or mid-March. But, like I said, you never know with the weather out here. It could be snowing and it could be cold up until April, but I'll have to get out there and try to work on it. So hopefully it's warmer.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.