There is an invitation-only, exclusive club in the turf management industry - and you know you've made it when you're asked to work the Super Bowl. Auburn Athletics' own Richard Wilt, manager of athletic turf and grounds, is one of its members.
Working his fourth consecutive Super Bowl and six of the last nine, Wilt finally gets to represent his alma mater.
The Super Bowl grounds crew is hand-elected by the head groundskeeper of the Atlanta Braves, Ed Mangan, who is also in charge of the grounds-keeping for the NFL post-season events. A crew of 30 to 35 from NFL, MLB and NCAA programs join forces behind-the-scenes to service the field management of the game that millions will be watching.
The connections Wilt has made in the past is what helped him land a spot on the Super Bowl crew. After graduating from Auburn in 2007, he began working with the Miami Dolphins and Marlins. During his time in Miami, the Super Bowl came to town and Wilt had the opportunity to meet Mangan and the other workers.
After five years in Florida, Wilt moved to a private sod farm that grew athletic turf. He traveled all over the country installing fields at professional football and baseball stadiums, as well as large universities. He continued building his foundation of connections at every installation job.
"I was able to stay in touch with some of the guys, and when a spot came open I was able to get my name in there," Wilt said.
The group of workers is a diverse bunch that range in age, location, and past job experiences.
"Guys from all around the world come, even from countries like Japan and Great Britain. And some guys have been there for 20 Super Bowls."
With that mix of knowledge, Wilt said there is always something new to learn and it is a great atmosphere to be around.
One thing any groundskeeper knows is that prep work must start early. Wilt flew to Houston January 23, two weeks before the big show, to join workers who arrived to start field preparations even earlier.
Along with preparing the main field for the game and performances, the turf crew will constantly be working on the practice fields. This year the championship teams will be practicing at the University of Houston and Rice University. Wilt's group will mow and paint the fields daily and will be ready to use tarps if needed because of rain.
"There are no off days when we go out there," Wilt said, who will work 12 to 15 hours each day.
Since Houston's NRG Stadium has an artificial turf field, this year's game is a little different for the turf crew than previous years.
"From our standpoint of grounds keeping, we won't have to mow it and we won't have to spray it. We'll paint it, groom it and clean any trash that's on it."
Even with the artificial turf taking away some of the stress from the turf crew, a big responsibility is maintaining the field before and after rehearsals for the pre-game and halftime shows. Covering the field with tarps before each rehearsal and doing quick walk-overs is also on the task list.
"The final coat of paint will still be done the night before the game when everyone's off the field, so Sunday it will be a clean, fresh paint job," Wilt said.
After pregame, warm-ups and halftime, they will check the field for damages or anything that could have fallen from the stage or been dropped. The workers get to remain on the field throughout the whole game.
"I've been blessed to see a lot of football games, but seeing the halftime show and pregame stuff always makes it memorable."
Following the game, the workers will pack up and load everything on the trucks. Most of the crew will leave Houston the day after the game, and Wilt will head back to The Plains.
Although it's been 10 years, the men who influenced him at Auburn before he graduated continue to impact him as coworkers today. Last September, Wilt officially returned to Auburn's turf team. He is responsible for the football field and overseeing the other athletic fields, as well as scheduling and managing the student staff.
Working with Eric Kleypas, director of Auburn's athletic turf and grounds, when he was a student at Auburn helped Wilt realize he could be around sports while still doing something that interested him. The work influenced him to pursue sports turf management. He wants to push and influence the current student workers the way he was encouraged.
"Our main focus is preparing the young kids and to let them obtain the tools they need for when they graduate and get a job," Wilt said. "Being in contact with the people out there only helps that.
"When I first started in turf management, I heard about working the Super Bowl and knew guys who had done it. I thought it would be neat to do and a great experience. I pursued that and tried to stay in touch with the guys, and it worked out. It was a goal, and I was able to accomplish it."
Achieving one goal is opening the doors to allow Wilt to help his student workers find opportunities at the same level. He said bringing awareness to them and getting them involved is his big goal now.
"I just want to acknowledge the great staff and crew here at Auburn for allowing me to participate in this great opportunity. This will be my first time representing Auburn at a Super Bowl, so it will be extra special for me."