With the ever-present menace of the COVID-19 coronavirus literally and figuratively in the air, one of the most remarkable streaks in sports history figured to be in jeopardy.
Since he’ll be turning 92 on Feb. 2, it seemed iconic groundskeeper George Toma surely would at least consider sitting out a Super Bowl for the first time since then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle appointed the Sultan of Sod to cultivate the Los Angeles Coliseum for what became known as Super Bowl I.
“And then some,” as it happens, to borrow a term Toma generously applies to anything he considers above and beyond expectations.
Certainly, that’s been true in this case. Never mind that he’s still way behind what Patrick Mahomes jokingly called Tom Brady’s 150th Super Bowl appearance the other day. (Okay, It’s actually merely Brady’s 10th.)
But after working all 54 games starting with the inaugural one between the Chiefs and Green Bay Packers on Jan. 15, 1967, it’s safe to say that Toma’s recurring role has become entwined with his identity and animates his sense of purpose.
As he confronted, or perhaps shrugged off, some of the sorts of dilemmas we all face right now, he might have had a fleeting notion that this encore was inadvisable. But any flickering misgivings didn’t make it feel less essential to the very being of this Kansas City treasure.
So amid NFL protocols understood to be stringent, frequent testing and with an abundance of caution (“and then some,” we hope), he followed the beacon that will forever be part of his legacy.
“When I die, I want the NFL logo over my heart,” he said Wednesday by telephone from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, where on Feb. 7 the Chiefs will seek to complete their quest to repeat as champions against the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV.
Similarly, Norma Hunt, the widow of Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt, also is expected to attend her 55th straight Super Bowl. Alas, though, a Chiefs spokesperson said she was “retired” from doing interviews.
While there are ample precautionary reasons not to go, there never was any serious hesitance for Toma.
“It’s like the highlight of his year … There was just kind of no way he would avoid it, come hell or high water,” his wife, Donna, said by telephone. With a laugh, she later added, “We had both, didn’t we?”
Seems we did … and still are as the pandemic rages on.
But vulnerability of age notwithstanding, this annual rite is embedded in the soul of a man who says his greatest asset in staying young is to “just keep working.”
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Besides, even with his considerable energy, nowadays when he sits down he might fall asleep any time, Donna said.
So best keep moving.
Like he still does at George Toma Field, the gorgeous Wiffle Ball diamond adjacent to Loose Park.
And on this gig in Florida, albeit in a more loosely supervisory role among a staff of 27 that includes Randy Baker (the head groundskeeper of the Belton, Missouri, School District working his 22nd Super Bowl), Travis Hogan (the Chiefs head groundskeeper working his fourth) and Toma’s son, Ryan (his 38th).
That’s nearly as many as the entire five-man crew from back in the day, when Toma was into the nitty-gritty for the first Super Bowl.
So off they went, Donna driving them the 1,388 miles to Tampa a couple weeks ago now. And if George was weary of the drive, well, he got a boost in Georgia near the Florida border.
“He was really excited about following the sod trucks” for the game, said Donna, whose own first Super Bowl was V (between the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Colts) and who has been to most since.
In fact, he’s still really excited about the sod: He’ll eagerly break down the 18-month growth process at its mere mention. And he wants you to know that its quality is such that “you can’t rip it apart with your hands.”
Meanwhile, nor can you rip this from the hands of a phenomenon whose path to Super Bowl mainstay had infinite pivot points.
For the sake of brevity, we’ll start with the son of a Pennsylvania coal-miner arriving in Kansas City to work at Municipal Stadium in 1957 and earning fame with his loving manicures of the Athletics of Charlie O. Finley and, later, the Chiefs and Royals.
Finley and Hunt, he’ll always remind you, were instrumental in everything that happened to him since. So, too, were his first crews: from Lincoln High (now Lincoln Prep) and Central High.
“They’re the ones who made me,” he said, recalling that they could drag an infield in 28 seconds and put down a tarp in 45.
Among his most memorable nights on the job, though, was Sept. 17, 1964, the night The Beatles played there (Sept. 17, as it happens, also made for another magical date in Kansas City history: Mahomes was born that day in 1995).
When he ponders that 1964 night, Toma thinks first of how the Fab Four were secretly brought into the stadium in a beer truck because of the hysteria surrounding them. But he also thinks of how they happily signed autographs for his son, Chip, to whom Ringo Starr also gave an autographed drumstick.
(In the process, they came to embody something Toma still values in the way a number of Super Bowl musical performers treated crew and others: From Lady Gaga to Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen, among others, he said, “in this materialistic world, they never lost the common touch … And then some.”)
A year after that Beatles show, and a year before the NFL-AFL merger, then-NFL commissioner Rozelle came to Kansas City to watch the Chiefs’ 1965 home game against San Diego. Toma recalls Rozelle telling him it was the “the most beautiful field I have ever seen.”
Next thing you know, he hires Toma for the first Super Bowl — an event that over time arguably has become bigger than The Beatles, depending on how you might measure such a thing.
All these years later, Toma could tell you a story about each one. Stories that never get old, much like he never seems to age.
Part of that is that coming back every year is a fountain of youth for him.
And maybe that’s all the more so when the Chiefs are involved.
Last year, when the Chiefs returned to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1970, he said Norma and Clark Hunt treated him like family. And he was touched that the Chiefs later gave him a Super Bowl ring to go with the one from Super Bowl IV and for the AFC Championship in 1966-1967.
But don’t expect to hear him profess any allegiance out loud now.
Last year in Miami, he told Commissioner Roger Goodell shortly before kickoff that he wished the Chiefs would win for “Lamar Hunt and Chiefs fans in Kansas City and all over the world.”
In response, Toma said Goodell told him, “You’ve got to be neutral.”
While Goodell surely was being playful at least to a degree, Toma made a point to call himself neutral this time around.
Still, it might be said he wanted it known that Hogan and Baker would be painting the Chiefs’ end zone on Thursday, only after a pause adding that the Buccaneers’ end zone also would be tended to Thursday.
Plenty more work remains to be done between now and the game, of course. And along the way, there’s Toma’s birthday that contours nicely with Groundhog Day, which since the 1993 movie of same name has come to stand for situations that keep repeating themselves.
In this case, it turns out, even when the situation is more precarious than ever but more life-affirming, too.
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