Perry Tames the Turf for Another Football Season
By Christine Neff
Head down, earphones in, Joey Perry looked intently at the patch of green grass in front of him, carefully turning it a bright, East Carolina gold with the spray paint wand in his hand.
“There’s not many people I trust to paint out here,” he said, smiling.
“Out here” is the football field at East Carolina University’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Just two days before the Pirate’s first home game, the field looked picturesque – lush, dark green and newly painted with white yard lines.
For nine seasons, Perry, ECU’s sports turf manager, has maintained this field and all of the university’s outdoor athletic facilities with a sort of fatherly pride.
“We want everybody to come in and be proud. It’s everybody’s field,” he said. Though, smiling, he added, “Well, I really feel like it’s my field. But on game day, it’s everybody’s.”
Perry began taming turf as a young athlete. He started working on the recreation fields he played on to make a little money on the side. He went on to study parks recreation and tourism at North Carolina State University, and worked full time for the grounds crew while completing his degree.
He came to ECU in August 2000 and, since then, has followed a rigorous routine to keep the fields in playing condition. It’s a year-round job with busy days for him and his staff of mostly part-time student workers.
Preparations for the new football season begin in the spring. “I try to push the Bermuda grass out here as hard as I can to get it ready for the season,” Perry said.
Bermuda grass grows well in Greenville’s transitional climate. Perry prefers a hybrid variety called Tifway 419 that holds up under the weight of football cleats, tackles and touchdowns.
But even Bermuda grass needs rain, and this summer’s dry months proved challenging to the veteran groundskeeper. “When it comes down to it, you can put all the fertilizer on it you want. But if you don’t get that heavenly rain, you’re not going to get that dark green color,” he said.
Luckily, the rain did come, weeks before the Pirates’ first game in Greenville. Maintenance became a matter of mowing, but not with your everyday lawn mower.
Perry’s machine cost more than $45,000. “This is like cutting your hair. You don’t want somebody cutting your hair with a propeller blade. You want somebody with sharp scissors,” he explained.
The two-day task of painting the football field’s yard and goal lines and the purple and gold pirate at the 50-yard line typically starts the Wednesday before a game, Perry said.
On Fridays, the opposing team has a chance to preview the field – no cleats allowed. Then, on game day, Perry is at the stadium by 7:30 a.m., doing last minute conditioning and putting out mats near the team benches to protect his grass. His crew also installs parking lot signs and trashcans for tailgaters.
Come game time, when 43,000 fans look intently at his football field, Perry’s gaze will be pointing the other way. He admits, he doesn’t get too excited when the team enters the stadium for the start of a new season. He’s more energized to see the fans.
“Sure, I want the team to win, and I want them to play good. But, I get more of a thrill when the people walk up in the stands and look down on the grass,” he said. “Every game is a point of pride. I want it to look as good as it can, every game.”