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There is a sign posted on the fence leading onto the Rose Bowl field that reads "Please pardon our mess. We're trying to grow grass."
There is perhaps no place in the country better at doing just that. But what happens inside that fence is about a lot more than just growing grass. The team charged with producing the world's most famous field is a tightly knit group that redefines the term extended family. After nearly a week of early mornings and long days together defined by lots of coffee, eating together and working side by side, my daughter and I are grateful to have been accepted into that group.
Will Schnell (pictured below right with assistant Miguel Yepez) likes to tell a story that sums up how he, and subsequently the rest of his team, view the Rose Bowl Stadium and the field they work so hard to maintain.
Mike Steve, territory manager for Brandt, once called Schnell and asked whether it was OK to stop by. He said he wanted to check in and look at Schnell's field.
"I had to correct him," Schnell said. "It's not my field, it's our field. We're all a family here, and Mike is part of that family."
When Schnell says "our field" he means more than himself and Steve, who is his contact for Grigg foliar fertilizers. He also means his entire team who work tirelessly on this playing surface.
Our week at the Rose Bowl started nearly a year ago in a meeting the week of last year's Golf Industry Show in San Diego. It was after meeting with Schnell and members of his team that I wanted to be part of seeing firsthand what they do to prepare for the Rose Bowl Game and to help out in some small way.
After nearly a year in the making, our week on the ground with a simple goal - trying to convey what goes on behind the scenes to produce what is generally regarded as the world's best playing surface at college football's oldest postseason game. Shortly after arriving for our first day on the job, we realized this was about a lot more than, as the sign says, growing grass.
It was immediately obvious that working at the Rose Bowl is much more than just a job for Schnell, his assistant Miguel Yepez, groundskeeper Martin Rodriguez and the rest of their team. Schnell has made sure everyone knows the history of the building and the game played here each New Year's Day since 1923. Many of the men on Schnell's team have at least 6-7 years of experience. Some have less, some have more. Together, they have 171 years of Rose Bowl prep experience.
Everyone who comes into contact with this place is enamored with the stadium and the surrounding mountains that make for such a picturesque scene, but they're also taken in by the field itself. All week people taking tours, visiting VIPs, players, coaches and even announcers from ESPN snap pictures of the field. The day after the game, the parking lots were full as people paid $15 apiece to walk on the field.
With all respect to the teams from the Big 10 and Pac 12 conferences that play here each year, the impact of the game itself as well as other top tier bowl games might be somewhat diminished by the college football playoff system, there is no doubt that an invitation to the Rose Bowl is meaningful to the participating teams and their respective fans.
"You can tell it means a lot," Schnell said after the game, won by Oregon 28-27.
Days earlier, when the Oregon team arrived for a walk-through on New Year's Eve, one of the players asked Schnell if he could walk on the field.
In golf, I can only compare it to your first visit to Augusta National. It's something you come to believe exists only on TV. Then you get there and are overcome by the history, the stories and the personalities that made the venue and its marquee event what it is today.
Every golf course superintendent and sports field manager says they are only as good as the team they work with. The same is true here, but something's different.
Once we arrived at the stadium, we got the schedule for the week and began meeting the 20 or so members of the team. They not only love the stadium, they all really care for each other and view one another as family. It's a different vibe than anything I've witnessed anywhere else, and it's top-down philosophy that starts with Schnell.
"We've been through a lot of wars together this season" said Schnell, who just completed his 22nd postseason game at the Rose Bowl. "Like family, we disagree and argue about things, but we all love each other."
Once we arrived, we were immediately part of the family.
"Will told us all about you and how you and your daughter were coming," said Reggie Beasley, who is in his second year at the Rose Bowl, but is handed a lot of responsibility. He took it upon himself to be our guardian angel for the week.
Schnell and Yepez direct traffic to make sure everything stays on track. They're always watching what goes on and they miss nothing.
Beasley was our self-appointed trainer for the week. He made sure we stayed busy and knew what we were doing. Both were much appreciated.
His older brother Walter has been here for seven years. Nicknamed "Big Walt", he is an intimidating figure. He plays semi-pro ball for the Compton Panthers and looks like he could have played New Year's Day for Oregon or Wisconsin. He also went out of his way from Day 1 to make us feel at home.
"We're all family here," he said. "And now you're family, too."
It might sound corny, but they bro-hug each other a lot in the morning. By Day 2, we received a good morning hug from our new friend Andree Goodman, who is in his sixth year here. That must have been the unofficial signal that we were OK, because it was handshakes, hugs and heartfelt greetings from everyone from that point forward.
Emotion rushes over you when people treat you this way. Then it dawns on you that this is the way people should treat each other, but often don't. Like I said, this place is special, and these guys all get it, and they were genuinely happy someone tried to look at the world through their lens and tell their story.
By the third day we were already sad that the gig was halfway over - and the game was still three days away. That is how much we enjoyed the camaraderie and the sense of belonging to the group. I've never been so sorry to see an assignment end.
"I'm going to miss these guys," Lauren said.
This place is more than a mass of concrete and steel wrapped around a grass field. It grabs you and takes hold of you. Ask Brandt's Mike Steve who has been coming out here to service this account for nearly 20 years.
It also is more than just a job. For the people who work here, it is helping change people's lives. Each one of these men has a story that makes them unique. Many of the men working here started sweeping the stands after games. Those who worked hard and lasted often were invited out of the stands and onto the field by Schnell.
Willie Youngblood earned a degree in criminal justice while playing football at Bacone College in Oklahoma. He loves the Rose Bowl, but his life goal is to work for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
"I know I can do good things for the community," he said.
This group is an eclectic mix. There is Geoff Thran, the high school teacher who recreates the Rose Bowl field in his yard every year, and Ian Gray, who is studying economics at UCLA, and was a recipient of a game ball given annually by Yepez and Rodriguez to two team members who go above and beyond. George Wiley is a retired Pasadena Police officer who now helps here along with his grandsons Jon Williams and Evan Devonshire. Then there's us, a middle-aged news junkie and his daughter, a student at the University of Kentucky.
As a graduate of nearby Cal Poly Pomona, Chris Chang, pictured at right mixing paint with Reggie Beasley, stands out in this crowd. He has worked here for 11 years - dating back to when he was in high school. During that time, his role has changed from student to teacher. Just ask Phil Singer.
One of the crew's elder statesmen, Singer has worked here for 14 years. Like all of us from a similar generation, he complains of back pain, but never lets it stop him.
"I've worked with Chris since he was a teenager, and I've seen him graduate from college," Singer said. "I used to teach all these kids, now they teach me."
Denzel Grant is Singer's nephew. His real job is working for the parks and rec department. The Rose Bowl is just a part-time gig as is occasional work at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Uncle Phil urged him to apply for a job at the Rose Bowl seven years ago. "It was working here that made my job at the park possible," Grant said.
These men all have different life experiences and cultural backgrounds, and admittedly Lauren and I shared nothing in common with them a week ago other than a love for the Rose Bowl Stadium and the game. Now we share a lot, because, as Big Walt says: we're family.
Can't you see the resemblance?