Jon DeWitt was driving to work one morning in February when he received text messages from two colleagues. They offered their sympathy to DeWitt, Georgia Tech’s sports turf manager, over the football team’s schedule.
“They’re like, Oh, man, your schedule [stinks],” DeWitt said. “I haven’t even seen it. What are you talking about?”
It wasn’t that the Yellow Jackets had a string of tough opponents. Rather, Tech’s schedule included four consecutive home games for the first time since 2006. For DeWitt, who manicures the Bobby Dodd Stadium turf with precision, care and mania, it meant his field would be in for a month-long beating.
This week, DeWitt has nursed the field to stage Tech’s game with Middle Tennessee State before it receives three weeks of relief.
“Just trying to hobble through and look as good as we can,” DeWitt said Tuesday.
Facilities director Shawn Teske calls DeWitt fanatical, passionate and “about the best there is.” According to another Tech employee who can call the Bobby Dodd turf his own, the 57,600 square feet of Bermuda grass overseeded with rye is in most capable hands.
“I think the field is always immaculate,” coach Paul Johnson said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who takes more pride in what he does and spends more time and effort. We’re fortunate to have him.”
Since the home opener against Presbyterian College Sept. 8, DeWitt and his staff have been tending to the field with extra care. A grass field cut to 9/16 of an inch isn’t meant for 22 large men digging and grinding their cleats into it for three-plus hours on a weekly basis, not to mention the traffic of a marching band and a 1930 Model A Ford Sport Coupe.
“It’s a living thing like you,” DeWitt said. “If you got kicked in the head every day, you can take it here or there, but eventually it’s going to catch up with you.”
With no away games or bye weeks, the recovery process has been compressed to get the field ready for four games in 22 days. The maintenance starts almost immediately after the game with a mowing to roll divots back into place, much the same way a golfer does on the fairway. Between Saturdays, there’s also manual divot replacement, two fertilizer sprayings with seaweed extract, multiple waterings and three more mowings. The field typically gets painted Thursday and Friday. The rest is hoping it doesn’t get too cold or cloudy.
“I can do a lot of things, but I can’t control the weather and I can’t control the football schedule,” he said.
DeWitt, 38, has no formal training in groundskeeping and was, in fact, an English major at Alabama-Birmingham. He learned some from his father Chuck, a residential landscaper, and the rest was learning on the job, through an industry organization and, he said, “just whatever else was available.”
He put himself through school by keeping the grounds at a private school in Birmingham. In 2000, the Wesleyan School in Norcross hired him as a groundskeeper and English student teacher. The school was mostly looking for someone to tend its campus but was willing to let him help teach middle-school English to see if he wanted to pursue it, DeWitt said.
After a year, DeWitt chose taming shrubs over shrews.
“I was like, Yeah, teaching is not my bag,” he said. “I need to be out growing grass.”
DeWitt, married with twin girls, was hired at Tech in 2007 and has been taking care of the turf at Bobby Dodd and Tech’s other grass fields since then. His easygoing demeanor masks an obsession over the green stuff.
He calls the pursuit of a flat, emerald-green playing surface an addiction. He shoos away visitors who step on the turf and loathes the camps and their many feet that stampede Tech’s fields in the summer. To nurture the ryegrass seeds, for example, he has been watering the field in nine-minute cycles several times a day. Young grass needs to feed on a different schedule in the same way an infant does, he explained.
“Through the rain and the clouds and the snow and the equipment breakdowns and the personnel problems, it all comes back to you’re chasing that green grass,” he said. “That’s it.”
Saturday, there’ll be one more trampling of his field and then it’ll just be him and his staff mending and nurturing it until the Boston College game Oct. 20.
Said DeWitt, “We should look beautiful by then.”