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A Real Green Thumb: Longtime ASU groundskeeper hanging up shovel

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By Zakkary Brog

When Brian Johnson played baseball in high school, something was different about him.

With no official groundskeeper working for the team, the players were responsible for maintaining and cleaning the field. While some worked to just get it out of the way, Johnson reveled in it.

“I was the one guy who stayed longer to make sure everything looked perfect,” Johnson says of Gilbert.

“It’s just always been in my blood to be a groundskeeper. I wanted to make sure when we showed up the next day for practice or for a game that the field looked nice.”

With hundreds of sporting events under his belt as a professional groundskeeper, Johnson has become one of the most respected names of the craft. Thanksgiving week he announced his retirement.

But that acclaim didn’t come overnight. Following that spark he felt in high school, Johnson attended Mankato State (now known as Minnesota State) and earned a degree in recreation. During a spring break trip in 1978, he traveled to Arizona to spend time with a brother and attend MLB Spring Training. He was in awe of the Valley’s fields.

“I did an internship at ASU taking care of all the athletic fields,” he says. “When that internship ended, they had a full-time position open up at the baseball stadium. So, really, ASU is the only place I’ve ever worked as a professional in my whole life.”

Johnson spent 12 years working on the baseball field at Packard Stadium, before eventually moving over to Sun Devil Stadium. Now, he’s responsible for all athletic fields.

With that responsibility comes an attachment to his work. When Arizona Wildcat players decided to destroy part of the midfield logo with their cleats before the 2019 Territorial Cup, Johnson took it personally.

“I take it personally when our own fans rush the field after a big win,” Johnson says. “If I’m going to be upset at our own fans, I’m going to be even more so at a visiting team. I was going to go out there and try to prevent that. But, I got a little bit busy and didn’t really see it happen because things were going smooth during pregame warmups.

“There are 90,000 square feet out there, and they decided to do their little huddle before going to the locker room right on the logo. Chunks of sod were flying, and that really did upset me. We’re planning on doing that logo again. I’m sure I’ll be out there on the field all pregame and not letting anything like that happen again.”

When he was promoted to work on that field, Johnson only worked for the Sun Devils. During the Cardinals’ tenure at Sun Devil Stadium, he helped paint the field. Late in the 1995 NFL season, he came to work unaware that he was about to face the toughest task of his professional life.

“George Toma, a groundskeeping legend, came down for a Cardinals game to check out the field,” Johnson recalls.

“I remember that I was painting the trimmer on the Cardinal letters in the endzone. I knew who he was, but he didn’t know who I was. He just walked up to me and didn’t say a word, crossed his arms, and watched me trim each letter. He would just follow me down the whole end zone, not saying a word. I thought that I was doing a good job, but he didn’t say anything. But when I finished, he said, ‘Hey, nice job painting, son. Can you help us for the Super Bowl?’”

It was Johnson’s first foray into the NFL, and it wouldn’t be his last. He’s worked on the grounds crew for over 20 Super Bowls and a multitude of international games.

Johnson isn’t resting on his laurels. Whether it’s a 20th anniversary tribute to those who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or an Arizona state flag pattern spanning the entirety of the playing field, he’s ambitious.

“Because they’re a special design, during the week we have to run a bunch of strings and tape measures and hand-brush everything,” Johnson says.

“It is a bit of work during the week, but I really like the fact that we’re known for that. People make comments quite often about all of our field designs. It helps ASU stand out and show some creativity instead of just doing the same field week after week.”

Johnson still has one dream job.

“If I could paint the lines for a World Cup final or a Champions League final, that would be great,” he says. “I’m a Bayern Munich fan, so if they were to make it to another final and I could be there, paint the field for the game, watch them win it, hoist the trophy up in the air, that would be it.” CT

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