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A lot goes into creating a level playing field

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When the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles battle in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla., this Sunday, they will have the pleasure of chasing and pummeling each other on the most meticulously nurtured turf in the world.

Every day since it was installed, an all-star crew of 25 groundskeepers from the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and Japan has tended the field with as much care as a coterie of nurses gives an aristocratic infant in an incubator. The slightest discoloration has been patched with pregerminated rye grass and fertilizer.

"The Super Bowl sod is designed to be both durable and look good to the millions of people watching the game," says George Toma, the NFL's turf consultant.

That is another way of saying the league wants its Super Bowl field to look like the front lawn of one of Jacksonville's posh oceanside estates.

Since the inaugural Super Bowl in 1967, Mr. Toma has been the man behind ensuring that NFL's premier event is played on a field as green as a freshly minted dollar bill. The grass - a hybrid Bermuda grass sod overseeded with an exclusive bluegrass/ryegrass mix - started growing a year and a half ago in southern Georgia, Toma says, and is cultivated to be strong enough to stand up to the 60 minutes of wear and tear from NFL behemoths.

Last month, nearly 100,000 square feet of the pampered sod was delivered in refrigerated trucks to Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium.

"About 10 acres of the sod is grown and we use the best of the crop while the remaining sod is 'on the bench' if we need it," Toma says. The groundskeeping crew installed it in three days.

Although the NFL has its own financial arrangement with the grower, West Coast Turf, in Palm Springs, Calif., a company spokesperson says the retail value of the grass is about $100,000.

"To showcase a great field, you have to get good sod," says Toma, whom Sports Illustrated called the "Nitty Gritty Dirt Man" because of his magic touch in producing championship playing fields. "In the early days we seeded, but since Super Bowl III, we have used sod."

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