A Titan Of Turf

From Kennedy Grave To M&t Bank Stadium, Va. Firm Takes Time To Lay Sod Right

July 18, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Jack Kidwell watches his six-man crew lay the strips of sod that will cover the field for M&T Bank Stadium's first soccer game next week with the peaceful air of a farmer who knows his land has been well-tilled.

"I've been doing this for 50 years," says Kidwell, 76, a native of tiny Boydton, Va., in a drawl as gentle as a Tidewater breeze. "You learn a few things in that time. One of them is it takes time to do this and do it right."

Kidwell is founder, president and co-owner of Duraturf Service Corp., the Richmond-based sod company that is laying 457 strips of sod, each 1 1/2 inches thick and weighing 2,400 pounds, atop the artificial Sportexe field on which the Ravens play. The process will take three days.

AC Milan and Chelsea will play there Friday as part of the World Football Challenge, a six-city barnstorming tour of the United States. They would commit only if they could play on a natural-grass field.

The Ravens are paying $100,000 to $200,000 for the temporary makeover, Kidwell says. (The soccer clubs will reimburse them.) The game, a sellout, is expected to be a $20 million boon to the region's economy.

Kidwell's crew started at 7 a.m. Friday, when supervisor Donald Patillo rumbled out in a John Deere 4x4 forklift, a roll of turf on its extended arms.

Kidwell didn't have to tell them much. A former Marine who fought in the Korean War, he farmed for a time, then became the first Virginian to enter the sod business back in the 1950s.

"In the early days, we did everything - home lawns, commercial work, government buildings," he says.

He grew sod on his 1,000-acre farm, harvested it, hauled it to the sites and laid it. Along the way, he saw a lot of history.

Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Kidwell supplied the sod around the memorial that marks the grave. He pulled up the sod and replaced it once a week for 15 years.

"There was a lot of foot traffic through there, with all the tourists," he says. "Eventually, it just got to be too expensive. [Arlington Cemetery] paved it over."

He has sodded most of the monument sites in Washington. Duraturf sodded the National Mall after a farmers rally in the 1980s, when protesters ran roughshod over the grass with their tractors.

"That was 25 acres of mess," he says. "And man, were those farmers mad at me. They were angry at the government, and they said, 'How can you help those people out like that?' But that was a lot of sod."

By the mid-1990s, Kidwell was working mainly in sports. He sodded football fields, turned diamonds into soccer pitches and created a natural synthetic grass, Dura-sport, that resists tearing.

"He's one of the guys in the industry," says Don Follett, the Ravens' head groundskeeper. "Sign a contract with Jack, and he gives you more than what you agreed on."

Kidwell laid sod for the Washington Redskins for 30 years. He has fond memories of coaches George Allen and Joe Gibbs. But Allen wasn't above sticking it to opponents.

Duraturf had helped install a field at RFK Stadium from which water could be sucked with pumps. During a game when the speedy St. Louis Cardinals were in town there was a driving rainstorm, leaving the field practically underwater at halftime.

Kidwell asked a stadium worker why the field was still so wet. "George told us to turn the pumps off," the worker said. It bogged the Cardinals down, and the Redskins won.

"Great guy," Kidwell says.

The company resodded Lambeau Field for the Green Bay Packers' NFC championship game in 1997. The Carolina Panthers, Washington Nationals, D.C. United and the Ravens became regular customers.

The company does the Ravens' practice fields in Owings Mills, and Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers' home field in Charlotte, N.C., boasts a Durasport surface.

"I'm partial to a lot of teams," Kidwell says with a laugh. "The ones I work for."

It's a rare thing, he says, to lay natural turf on the artificial stuff, if only because it's pricey for a one-time job. The crew must put a layer of plastic on the artificial turf to protect it from dirt and moisture. Once the game is over, they'll haul all 80,000 square feet of sod back to Richmond, where they'll replant it for future use.

But when it comes to laying sod, the M&T Bank Stadium job is like most others. As the crew proceeds, he does a soft-spoken play-by-play.

First, he says, you decide exactly where you want your first sideline. You lay the pieces end-to-end along that sideline, keeping the edge straight, tamping each in with a mud rake as you go. Once that row is in place, you pin each of its panels to the ground. That way, as you lay in more rows, there's an anchor to press them against.

"A tight fit is everything," he says.

On average, Kidwell's crewmen have been with Duraturf, a 20-employee firm, for more than 20 years, and it shows. A tank-like conveyance called a "lay machine" unspools the 42-inch-wide rolls. Crewmen follow, raking and tamping. Row by row, the field fills in.

If it rains, "we keep going," Patillo says. A soccer pitch - thick, green, all but seamless - will be in place by Sunday night.

On Friday, some of the world's best players will take that field before 70,000 fans, a soccer atmosphere unlike any M&T Bank Stadium has ever seen.

Is Kidwell worried? He doesn't look it. "You'll have a good field," he says.

He doesn't sound like he's bragging.

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