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Sodfather Keeps Falcons Cut Above The Rest


Flowery Branch, Ga.-- During his annual Training Camp visit in 2006,'s Peter King called the three regulation fields behind the Falcons Flowery Branch Headquarters "the best-groomed practice fields I see annually."

When fans walk through the facility gates for training camp this year, many will corroborate King's claim, but few will understand what went into getting the acres of lush turf into their pristine condition.

For Jim Hewitt, the Falcons' groundskeeper of 28 years, it's a mixture of chemistry, physics, elbow grease, and a little good luck.

Every phase of an NFL franchise has its own season. The players, of course, play from August to January. The front office scouting process runs year-round, but picks up after the season ends with an eye toward the free-agency process and the draft.

And those that manage the fields that the players play and practice on perhaps have the smallest window of time to complete their season.

Hewitt and his offseason staff of one work hard to maintain the Flowery Branch practice fields from March to June when the players are on and off the field almost every day during minicamps and OTAs.

The Super Bowl for Hewitt is the first day of training camp when the players take the fields for real, ready to win jobs, and fans are present at practices to watch their team mold itself into a winner.

Just like on game day at the Georgia Dome, the groundskeeper wants to give fans, and players, a world-class, NFL experience, a visual image that is eye-popping with greens and whites.

"I want to give you an experience like the Masters," said Hewitt recently during a break from hand-watering the Falcons grounds. "When the fans walk out here I want them to say 'My God, look at that.' It's a first impression. I want to hit them. I don't want them to say their lawn looks better than that."

But there's a reason the three football fields at Flowery Branch look better than most fans' home yards. Just like the players that assume the fields go through an offseason process in preparation for training camp and ultimately the regular season, so do the grounds.

"It's like offseason condition for the players," said Hewitt. "I'm putting the sod in right now. I'm going to do my aerification, my top dressing. Then I'll start fertilizing. I'll probably do another aerification. So I'm going to do a lot of work. I've got a lot of work in the next two weeks. Then the last two weeks I don't do anything but just let it mend and then juice it back up. Then the last week I'll start striping the fields."

Hewitt's comparison to the historic manicured greens of Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, home of The Masters Golf Tournament, is a solid one.

"It's six acres of putting green is basically what it amounts to," said Hewitt of the Falcons fields.

And the master of the grounds cares for it as passionately as the notoriously-crafted greens on Georgia's most famous golf course.

He begins in June laying new sod in patches around the field that are worn beyond the immediate repair of his sun-soaked hands. It comes in rolls, weighing 1,700 pounds and takes days to sow.

Hewitt selects a breed of grass called Tifsport, a variety of Bermuda grass, known for its tolerance to disease and cold as well as its tolerability to traffic and frequent lower mowing heights. He calls it the latest and the greatest grass in the industry, a notch above what many believe is the workhorse of the grounds industry, Tifway 419, the old standard of athletic field Bermuda grass.

Once the grass is down, the real process begins, a process that Hewitt has honed through his years of trial and error and study (he admits that he doesn't watch much sports on television, instead opting to watch the grass: "I watch the field. I watch the footing, I'm watching for the stripes. I do it all the time.").

Water is his best friend and a rainy day is his best friend forever.

"I probably battle the elements as much as I do anything," said Hewitt.

Using "guns", specifically-stationed, powerful sprinklers, and numerous smaller sprinklers placed around the field, around 82,000 gallons of water is pumped onto the fields in four-hour watering sessions, piped in from the three-acre lake behind the field.

The sod sits on top of 12 inches of sand and four inches of gravel, and it drains back into the pond at a rate of 16 to 18 inches per hour. Consistent watering is critical to all the grass, especially the newly-laid greens.

The aerification process involves using machinery to poke holes into the ground, opening up the top three to four inches of soil to allow the roots oxygen, relieve soil compaction, and encourages improved water filtration.

Part of the aerification for Hewitt involves dragging 125 tons of sand on the top of the fields to help level them off and improve drainage.

Keeping the field level is as important to Hewitt as the cosmetic appeal of the lush grass is to everyone else. He understands the players are the ones that drive the franchise and he's an important part of keeping them healthy. It's something he doesn't take lightly.

"It's a burden," he said. "$100 million dollars worth of players are hitting these fields every day. [The grass] better be ready."

Having a field deserving of the best athletes in the world is also what sets these fields apart, according to Hewitt. On the surface, they may look like the golf course down the street or the yard of the month in a fan's neighborhood, but there's one critical distinction.

"A lot of people try to compare my football fields to their home lawns," said Hewitt. "They may think their home lawns look a lot better, but you can't put football players on them. These things are perking at such a tremendous rate it's like a (putting) green."

Once training camp begins, the payoff comes for Hewitt, but at a cost. He's never more proud than on the first day of camp when the fields are glowing green and white and adorned with logos, but the maintenance process of the grounds begins once the first practice ends.

"We've got the fields smoking [on the first day]," said Hewitt. "It's ready for them. It is perfect. And you go out there afterward and you look at it and there's trash, divots, clumps of grass, and equipment everywhere."

That's when the hours start to mount. During camp, he'll work 12-13 hour days, seven days a week, mowing the grass after every practice, spreading a green-dyed sand to fill divots (he estimates he'll use three tons of it during training camp), and re-striping the fields every three days.

Some days it feels like there aren't enough hours in the day to accomplish what is necessary, but he manages to always find a way.

"It's kind of weird," the Superintendent of Grounds Maintenance said. "I don't even know how I do it. I have no idea how I even get it done. You just gather up all your energy and get it done."

He admits to knowing it's just a practice facility, but it's the NFL and he knows fans will conjure up images of perfection in their head prior to their visit to Flowery Branch and he doesn't intend to let them down. He believes players and coaches expect it as well.

Hewitt's always on the quest to provide the same wow factor that a deep touchdown pass or a pad-crunching hit provides.

"I feel like that by the time training camp comes, I'm giving [a field] as good as a game-day field," he said. "It's just a training camp, but I'll give them just as good of a bang as they'll get at any stadium."

RELATED: View photos of Hewitt and his crew preparing the fields just a few weeks prior to camp

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