Members of the crew that cleared snow from DSG Park field for USMNT on March 22, 2013
Garrett Ellwood / Colorado Rapids

The Grounds Crew that Became U.S. Soccer’s 12th Man in WCQ Win

In every soccer match played round the world, the 12th man is always the home-field crowd that pushes a team to victory. And that was especially true on Friday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park as 19,374 fans braved blizzard conditions to help the U.S. Men’s National Team to a crucial 1-0 win against Costa Rica in the first home match of the Final Round of World Cup Qualifying.

But in this match, the 12th man was not just in the stands. If not for the tremendous work of nearly 40 staff members and volunteers of the Colorado Rapids and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, as well as U.S. Soccer staff shoveling snow off the pitch, who knows if the game would have been played – or at least finished.

The snow started sticking to the grass about an hour before kickoff. By the time the teams came out to warm up, the field already was covered with a thin layer of snow.

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park turf department chief Bret Baird and his team brought out two utility vehicles with plows to begin clearing the field.

“We’d been preparing for it all week,” Baird said. “So we had our plows down there ready to go, our shovels ready, snow blowers staged and ready, and I even put a plow on my truck and had that ready to go, as a last resort. We didn’t know if we would have to use any of this, but we had it ready just in case.”

The crew also had mixed orange paint in case they needed to re-paint the lines, as they had done ahead of the Rapids’ home opener. What they weren’t sure about was the manpower given how fast the snow was accumulating.

“I knew that I would have enough bodies to get the minimum amount done, because I had PFS (Premier Facility Services) ready to help,” Baird said. “And then we had so much staff volunteering.”

Baird relied on senior stadium staff of Charlie Chicko and Brian Theobald and security manager Gabe Montanez to spread the volunteers – which included personnel from stadium operations, security, marketing, team operations, engineers and maintenance – and 60 shovels around the field.

Danny Gonzalez was supposed to be stationed with the engineers behind the goals, being attentive to potential field board or net issues. But when he saw the crew struggling with the amount of snow, he picked up a shovel and got to work, not realizing the impact he and the rest of the staff would have on the match.

“I was out there just trying to do our job,” Gonzalez said. “And then we could hear the stadium cheering for us, yelling ‘shovel, boys,’ when the ball went to the other side. On my side, U.S. fans were handing us gloves and hand-warmers from the stands to help us out.”

Another volunteer was Chris Schafer, part of the Rapids’ grassroots street team that came to the stadium in kakis and whose main duties were to survey fans entering the match. After kickoff they sat in the stands for a bit, but then found themselves with shovels in hand on the field 10 minutes before halftime.

“We really wanted to do whatever we could to help them get three points,” Schafer said. “I wasn’t as much as a grounds crew guy but more of a Rapids and U.S. fan that wanted to help our country.”

Ten minutes into the second half, the referee stopped play briefly to consider whether the match should continue, but U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann appealed – as did the players.

“I would have done anything possible not to stop it,” Klinsmann told the media afterward. “That’s why I went a little bit on the field, as well, and with my bad Spanish told the referee: ‘We are not stopping that game! If you clean up the lines we can play.’”

The match began again but the snow did not surrender.

Schafer and the crew were taking instructions from both the DSG Park turf department and members of the U.S. Soccer Federation, not knowing immediately what role they were playing in the big picture.

“At one point I was told to clear Jurgen Klinsmann’s technical area,” Schafer said. “And then we were asked to go down to the attacking end because we wanted an advantage down there. That’s when it hit us that we were helping the U.S. team by clearing the snow and keeping the game going.”

With the U.S. holding the one-goal lead, Gonzalez found the tables turned. During one stoppage of play he began shoveling across the midfield line, but the snow pile was too big to push all the way across. That’s when U.S. defender Geoff Cameron assisted Gonzalez by pushing him from behind to help get the snow to the sideline.

“I was halfway across and I was already tired from shoveling all game,” Gonzalez said.  “I was thinking ‘how am I going to do this?’ The snow was getting heavier and heavier, and I even made the line kind of crooked.

“But then I felt someone behind me and I just thought, I gotta keep going, I gotta keep going. I was trying to look back to see who was giving me a hand but I couldn’t see because I had my hoody on, so I couldn’t tell who it was until we got to the sideline. Then I just turned around said ‘thank you.’”

Cameron and the U.S. players recognized the crew’s tiresome efforts, so Cameron did not hesitate to lend a small push for Gonzalez.

“One guy first came onto the pitch and was shoveling, and the ref told him to get off the field,” Cameron said. “The other one just jumped on and got halfway across, and at that point there was a good amount of snow on the shovel. The ref was trying to get things going, and you could tell the guy was struggling to get some traction, so I just put my hand on his back and helped him get across the field as fast as possible. Those guys were fantastic all game. It wouldn’t have continued without them.”

While many around the world saw the work of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park turf department for the first time on Friday, the national Sports Turf Managers Association had recognized Baird and his crew as winner of the 2012 Professional Soccer Field of the Year award.

“We’d have done the same thing whether it was the Rapids, or China versus Spain, or any other teams,” Baird said. “If there’s a game and there is snow, that’s our job and we’re going to get it done and we’re going to do it well. But the fact that it was the U.S. Soccer team makes it even that much sweeter and was that much more motivation to get it done when we were out there.”

Gonzalez said he received calls from friends and family on Saturday telling him how the fans, media and even the U.S. players were acknowledging the great work of the grounds crew.

“I appreciate that they realized we were out there working hard for them,” he said. “To me, it just feels good that they came out with a win. And it feels good that I was there helping our country and supporting U.S. Soccer.”

Following the match, the entire USMNT signed a shovel and presented it to the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park staff as a gift for the hard work.

The following staff members, interns and volunteers helped clear the snow off the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park field before and during the U.S. versus Costa Rica match on March 22, 2013:

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park: Bret Baird (Turf Department), Cody Witham (Turf Department), Many Gracia (Turf Department), Brian Theobald (Operations), Charlie Chicko (Operations), David Novin, Gabe Montanez (Security), Nick Miles (Events), Nate Stahlecker (Events), Xander Cooper (Events), Mike Hutcheon (Events).

Colorado Rapids Team Operations staff and interns: Andrew Drysdale, Chris Zitterbart, Josh Englund, Bobby Potrykus

Colorado Rapids Marketing / Street team: Wayne Brant (Marketing), Martina Cisneros, Kathleen Ashcraft, Matt Kaelin, Stephen Younger, Chris Schafer, Evan Sauve, Tony Gonzales, Austin Brooks, Alex Carlson, Manuel Castro, Devon Larson, Zak Arlen

Premier Facility Services: Matt Steinhart, Danny Gonzalez

Pepsi Center Engineering: Danny Nichols

U.S. Soccer staff: Jay Berhalter (Kentaro Group), Garret Drexler, Steve Hoffman, Amy Hopfinger, Asher Mendelsohn, Ryan Mooney, Jeff Ricondo