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For 30 years, Bucs grounds chief Wayne Ward has left it all on the field

After working more than 300 Bucs games, the Leto High alumnus is retiring in April.
Wayne Ward, the Bucs' groundskeeper extraordinaire, is retiring in April after 30 years on the job.
Wayne Ward, the Bucs' groundskeeper extraordinaire, is retiring in April after 30 years on the job. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 21|Updated Jan. 22

TAMPA — In a previous life, Wayne Ward was a rising sophomore center at Leto High, brimming with stoutness and self-confidence until one fateful encounter during summer workouts.

“The inside linebacker was a guy named Bernard Clark,” recalled Ward, a 1987 Leto graduate. “I thought I was a big guy at center, and my obligation was to go out and seal off that inside linebacker. You know how that turned out.”

Clark evolved into the Orange Bowl MVP for Miami’s 1987 national title team and a third-round draft choice of the Bengals. Ward? In a matter of speaking, his face has remained embedded in fields ever since.

On Sunday, the Raymond James Stadium turf and grounds manager will work his 307th — and perhaps final — Bucs game. By 7 a.m., hours before the earliest revelers drop their tailgates, Ward will punch in for his normal 12-hour game day.

At that point, the arduous legwork — manicuring, maintaining, stenciling and painting the field — will have been completed by Ward and his staff, which features five full-timers and a legion of part-timers. The finishing touches include the placement of team benches, raising of nets and readiness of tarps.

The field at Raymond James Stadium was certainly postseason ready last Sunday when the Eagles came to town.
The field at Raymond James Stadium was certainly postseason ready last Sunday when the Eagles came to town. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

All while Ward polices the pristine field, trying to keep all unauthorized shoes off the 57,600 square feet of hybrid Bermuda grass technically known as Tifway 419. Unless you’re a player, coach, official or performer, get off his lawn.

“I always tell people, the gray hairs on my head are not from my daughters,” said Ward, a married dad of four and grandfather of four. “They’re from that football field.”

Those divots of anxiety vanish in April, when Ward retires after 30 years on the job. For more than a generation, this 52-year-old Tampa native has kept the natural surface at Raymond James Stadium — and Tampa Stadium before that — serviceable for concerts, Bulls-Bucs doubleheaders, Outback Bowls and even three Super Bowls.

But no Monster Jams. Ward is wise enough to schedule his vacation around that diesel-powered, dirt-flying showcase.

“That debacle happens while I’m gone,” said Ward, technically employed by the Tampa Sports Authority, which operates the stadium. “And when I come home, I take the remnants of what they’ve left me, and we put in a new field every year.”

Raised in Town ‘n’ Country, Ward has lived out his dream, or at least a variation of it. The initial goal was to get an agriculture degree and return home to teach the subject while overseeing the Future Farmers of America program at Leto.

He got the degree at FSU (with a dual enrollment at Florida A&M), then discovered his destiny with a de facto internship at Tampa Stadium while home one summer.

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“I was like, ‘Wow, this could be a cool way to stay close to (sports),’” Ward said. “And I’m still touching earth and moving earth and growing things. Thirty years later, 306 home games, and here we are.”

Yet to the typical fan, he remains as anonymous as he is tireless, the landscape equivalent of a left guard.

Only a field catastrophe would make Ward conspicuous, and some hectic schedules have conspired to throw him off his game in recent years. Yet he and his staff have held their ground — literally.

Take last fall, after a USF night game. Ward and his crew spent the ensuing wee hours converting the field for the following afternoon’s Bucs-Falcons contest, only to watch a pre-dawn shower wash away their craftsmanship. After waiting roughly an hour, they repeated the process, completing it less than four hours before the 4:05 p.m. kickoff.

Sunday's division playoff game against the Rams could be Wayne Ward's final home game (unless the Bucs win and Packers lose this weekend).
Sunday's division playoff game against the Rams could be Wayne Ward's final home game (unless the Bucs win and Packers lose this weekend). [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

That still pales next to his most demanding stretch, at the outset of 2017. Ward and Co. prepared the field for a Bucs game (Jan. 1), an Outback Bowl (Jan. 2) and the College Football Playoff national title game (Jan. 9).

“So that’s three games, two sod change-ups, one of them the entire field, in eight days,” Ward said. “My guts were in knots for days.”

If partisans typically don’t give his labor a second thought, peers have.

At the Sports Turf Managers Association’s annual convention in Savannah, Ga., earlier this week, Ward was named to the 2022 Class of Pioneers in the Field. In a story for pioneerathletics.com, 49ers director of grounds Matt Greiner called Ward a “trendsetter as a multi-use facility groundskeeper.”

“Wayne has been a true professional and has worked tirelessly over these past (30) years in his role with the Tampa Sports Authority overseeing the turf and grounds at Raymond James Stadium,” Bucs chief operating officer Brian Ford said in a statement released by the team.

“The Buccaneers appreciate and thank Wayne for his diligence and congratulate him for his extended efforts during an esteemed career.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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