SECAUCUS, N.J. – Before the artists can do their work, they need a canvas.
That’s where Stephen Sansonese comes in.
Sansonese is a 27-year-old from Hamburg who works as the field and site grounds manager at MetLife Stadium, which Sunday will host the biggest sporting event in the world, Super Bowl XLVIII.
Sansonese will be one of the very first people on the field on game day, helping to make sure every last detail of its preparation is perfect – right down to placing the pylons in the end zone.
And should it snow, he’ll be part of the team that handles that, too.
For the Big Game, the National Football League brings in its own grounds crew to prepare the field for play – which is Sansonese’s usual responsibility during the regular season for the two teams that share the stadium, the New York Jets and New York Giants.
That means that Sansonese is working as a liaison this week, meeting daily with Ed Mangan, the league’s field director for the Super Bowl. Their meetings cover everything from how hard the playing surface is to what to do in case of precipitation.
“I’ll talk with him and share my views,” said Sansonese, a Frontier High School and Canisius College graduate. “Ed might come to me and say, ‘Hey, could you have your crew help us?’ We work together basically to get everything done.”
The first-ever cold-weather outdoor Super Bowl has created some challenges never seen before.
For example, there was a dusting of snow Tuesday night, so at 7 a.m. Wednesday, Sansonese and his crew assisted the league in removing the snow from the tarp on the field. They placed field heaters underneath the tarp, and inflated it to heat the surface of the field. At 11 a.m., the tarp was removed so that the kickers and punters for the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks could practice.
Sansonese gets three different weather updates each day. “I have a Doppler radar screen in my office, and we watch it religiously,” he said.
Sunday’s forecast from the National Weather Service calls for a 30 percent chance of rain, mainly before 1 p.m., and a high of 51 degrees. With kickoff set for 6:25 p.m., it’s increasingly likely snow won’t be part of the equation.
“The best-case scenario is good weather the whole time,” Sansonese said. “The worst-case scenario is snow. Your life’s terrible if it snows. We had 14 inches last Tuesday night, and it took us two days to clear out the whole stadium. It’s just a lot to get snow out of that building, but I don’t really think there is a worst-case scenario, because if there is adversity, there are so many experienced people with the NFL, that we know how to handle it. Plus, the forecast is looking good.”
With the temperature rising, it also may affect how the league prepares the playing surface. The field in MetLife Stadium is made of synthetic turf. It’s made up of “infill,” which is a mixture of sand and rubber from ground-up tires.
When it’s cold, the field has a tendency to get harder. During the regular season, Sansonese uses a machine called a Clegg Hammer to test how hard the playing surface is 72 hours before every game. “It’s a giant hammer that smacks on the field and gives you a reading,” he said.
An acceptable reading for an NFL field is between 60 and 100, with a lower number meaning a softer field.
“Obviously you don’t want to go too soft because players could slip. They don’t have good traction,” Sansonese said. “But too hard, obviously concussions are a huge concern, so you don’t want your field so hard that if a player hits their helmet on the turf, it can have serious effects.”
The NFL tested the MetLife field Thursday with Sansonese’s assistance, and likely will again Saturday. While the results of that test are confidential, the turf was compliant all regular season under Sansonese’s direction.
Should the NFL test the field again Saturday and get a Clegg number too high for its liking, it can aerate the field, punching holes in it that allows it to breathe by breaking up the infill and spreading it out. That’s something Sansonese and his crew did last week.
If the Clegg number was too low, the league may decide to add moisture to it. That pushes the sand and rubber together.
While those decisions are handled by the league this week, they are what Sansonese does on a weekly basis during the regular season.
Ultimately, Sansonese’s primary responsibility is to make the playing surface safe. Another way he does that is to make sure the surface is smooth. He measures the millimeters of infill in sections. If the numbers vary, the field is groomed.
That’s something Sansonese, who will be working his first Super Bowl, said will likely be done the morning of the game. A tractor with a brush and magnet on the back is driven over the field. The rush smoothes out the surface, while the magnet picks up metal or anything that would be harmful.
Sansonese said the NFL goes the extra mile for the Super Bowl.
“They’ll go to the point where they roll up tape backward and pick lint off the field,” he joked. “It’s the biggest event of the year.”
Sansonese got into athletic facilities management on a whim. While attending Canisius as an undergraduate studying education, a work study position opened up in the athletic operations department. That led to a position as a graduate assistant while he earned a master’s degree in sports administration.
“I had no clue that I wanted to do this, but I loved sports,” he said. “I learned the ropes of how to take care of baseball fields, soccer fields, really every sport there. I was blessed to have really good bosses there who gave me a chance.”
Sansonese went from Canisius to his first full-time job at Siena College outside Albany, where he worked as the athletic facility manager. He stayed there for three years before coming to MetLife in August 2012.
“It went pretty fast. I was in the right place at the right time. I’ve always been a really hard worker, so I used that enthusiasm – and some good references – to get here,” said Sansonese, who credits Canisius Athletic Director Bill Maher’s support, as well as that of the Golden Griffins’ facilities team of Gordon Anthony and Jon Lyons.
He moved to New Jersey with his girlfriend, Jess, a schoolteacher. Sansonese’s dad, Steve, is in Buffalo, and his mom, Jackie, is in Hamburg.
“Being from Buffalo, I miss it there. It’s a great place,” Sansonese said. “Jersey is a lot different, but I enjoy it.”
During one week last summer, MetLife hosted a concert on a Saturday, a soccer game played on natural grass on the following Wednesday, then two preseason football games on the weekend – four major stadium events in eight days.
“Concerts, monster truck shows, we had Wrestlemania here last April. We’ve done it all,” said Sansonese, who regularly works with a crew of seven. “It’s the No. 1-grossing stadium in the world, so you see everything here. The guys know what they’re doing. I’m blessed to have a very good crew.”