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Months after retiring, former ASU groundskeeper keeps his green thumb

Brian Johnson, who has painted the field at 25 of the past 26 Super Bowl games, worked at ASU for over three decades

Brian Johnson.jpg

ASU's lead groundskeeper, Brian Johnson, has worked at ASU for 37 years, a total of 236 football games.

On his very last day as ASU's lead groundskeeper, Brian Johnson headed to the east side of Sun Devil Stadium where he'd spent many hours of his life and knelt down on the grass. 

He pulled out a pair of scissors and began cutting away a small, single-square-foot section of the field. 

Once arriving at his house in Gilbert, Johnson placed the section of grass in a small white pot and set it by his poolside. And just like he did over many years with the Sun Devils, he started to tend to the grass. Trimmed it. Seeded it. Watered it. 

Following 37 years at ASU, working a total of 236 football games, Johnson wanted to keep a piece of the place he called home. 

"I wonder if I can edge the lawn and mow it, fertilize it, water it and still swim all in the same day," Johnson said jokingly after he first placed the pot in his backyard.

It's all very fitting for someone who you think would be sick of seeing grass and maintaining it. But Johnson is the exact opposite. He lives for this type of stuff. 

After retiring last spring, Johnson is still involved with his life's work in a big way. He most recently painted the field for the NFL's first game in Germany. In February, Johnson will paint the field at the 2023 Super Bowl in Glendale.

It is the continuation of a long tradition for Johnson, who has been a part of the groundskeeping crew at every Super Bowl since 1996, only missing the 2014 game. For Johnson, his passion for groundskeeping started much earlier than that, back in the late 1970s in southeastern Minnesota.

'Natural tendency'

Johnson was on the baseball team while attending Red Wing Central High School, located near the northernmost tip of the Mississippi River that separates the borders of Minnesota and Wisconsin. As well as being a member of the team, the players helped tend to the field they competed on. This is where Johnson first noticed a passion for groundskeeping.

"Most of the guys didn't care too much. I just found myself staying a little extra, raking a little more, wanting the field to look really nice for our next game," Johnson said. "I think it was just something I kind of had a natural tendency for."

The work inspired Johnson to pursue a degree in recreation at Mankato State. While today's college programs offer highly specialized degrees such as agriculture, horticulture, landscaping and groundskeeping, recreation was the only option for Johnson when he was in school.

During his final year, Johnson got an internship with ASU. He worked the spring of 1984 with the Sun Devils. Immediately following his internship, Johnson was hired to work at Packard Stadium, the old ASU baseball facility.

Upon arrival, a paint gun was placed in Johnson's hands. Johnson, who wouldn't necessarily describe himself as a creative mind, but did once win an Easter coloring contest in elementary school, had to learn how to design on the fly. 

Over the years, Johnson worked his way up the University ranks until he was named lead groundskeeper. During that time, Johnson worked with a number of people who learned under his tutelage. 

Caring for more than just the field

Josh Lenz was one of those people. 

Lenz met Johnson a decade ago. But it was only in the last five years Lenz started to see Johnson more regularly as the two only briefly crossed paths at the Super Bowl. 

After Johnson brought Lenz to ASU, the two formed a relationship that extended much deeper than grass and soil.

"A lot of people in this day and age have a million things going on, himself included," Lenz said. "Even if he had something pressing that needed (to be) done but I had a problem, he would always take the time to put everything else aside and make sure that he was there for me when I needed him. That's just the kind of person he was."

Lenz, who is now the manager of athletic grounds at ASU, noted he was far from the only one who felt the impact of Johnson on their life.

For Johnson's final game at Sun Devil Stadium, Lenz reached out to the former students who worked with Johnson. Lenz said over 24 students from five different states flew into Tempe.

"Most of these kids were only here for three to four years," Lenz said. "So for him to be able to make an impact on someone that quickly, you knew it was a lifelong caring for them. Only Brian could have that sort of effect on somebody."

Right spot, right time

Johnson got his start working at the 1996 Super Bowl when it was played at Sun Devil Stadium between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. It was his co-worker, Pete Wozniak, that set up Johnson with the Super Bowl assignment.

With the Sun Devils sharing a stadium with the Arizona Cardinals at the time, Wozniak and Johnson were invited by The Sodfather himself, George Toma, to be part of the groundskeeping crew for the Big Game.

"We worked hard, they (NFL) appreciated the work, liked the work we did," Wozniak said. "Got invited to go to Monterrey, Mexico that summer. And then New Orleans for the next Super Bowl. Super Bowl 30 was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And here we are, 27 years later, still having a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity every year."

Since then, Johnson has been to every Super Bowl besides the 2014 game. Wozniak, the athletic facilities maintenance manager at ASU, hasn't missed any either. The pair are the genesis of a deep tradition of groundskeeping at ASU that culminated with the University having five people represent the school on the field at the 2016 Super Bowl in Santa Clara, California.

Even though it happens every year, the rarity is not lost on Johnson.

"I feel very lucky to do that," Johnson said. "There's a lot of great groundskeeper painters in the world, but I was just in the right spot at the right time to get into that gig."

To this day, the square foot of grass is still in the white pot by Johnson's poolside. 

Johnson recently accidentally over-seeded it. But, as a proper groundskeeper does, he made the necessary corrections. 

The piece of grass from Sun Devil Stadium could be seen as an allegory to Johnson — both removed from their homes that they knew for so long, but thriving in their new lives. 

Edited by Piper Hansen, Wyatt Myskow and Andrew Onodera

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Logan StanleySenior Reporter

Logan Stanley is a senior reporter at The State Press. He previously served as the managing editor of the school newspaper at Eastern Washington University. He has four years experience as a freelance journalist and is a graduate student in the master of arts of sports journalism program. 

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