Time-lapse photography by Robert Beck for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated
It’s a cool early fall night in Los Angeles, and the final seconds are ticking off on an LA Galaxy draw with Real Salt Lake. At the final whistle, the players shake hands and head into the locker rooms at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., about 20 miles south of Los Angeles.
Now the real work begins. In 15 hours the Chargers are set to play the Eagles on the same field that just staged a soccer match. And the grounds crew has until 8:30 a.m. to finish the job.
Led by Shaun Ilten, the director of turf and grounds, who’s been with the facility since 2005, two crews will turn a soccer pitch into a football field, the only known conversion at the pro level in such a short turnaround. They will have done it three times this season, the last being this night, Sept. 30. “It’s fun and stressful,” says Ilten. “You have to have a plan. If you don’t, that’s when you’re in trouble.”
Changing the field from soccer to football requires multiple crews and specific assignments taking place at the same time, including a highly coordinated ballet of efficient spray painting. For Ilten, it also requires three cups of coffee and a Red Bull. The work is divvied up based on the different ends of the field. No moment is wasted.
First the regular stadium grounds crew takes down the soccer goals and clears the field from the first game. While that’s happening, the conversion crew—who arrived at the stadium around 8 p.m.—brings the uprights and crossbar down to the field. The football goalposts are up by 11:05, about 45 minutes after the work begins.
While the goalposts are being assembled, a crew member is beginning to paint the yard lines. As he walks down the field, he greens out the soccer markeres, not erasing them, but just hiding them.
After the goalposts are up, a crew will go to the end zone to paint the Chargers logo, using a a 25-by-150 foot stencil. Crew members paint within half-moon shapes within the stencil, peel it back and fill in the middle parts to create a contiguous logo. One end zone takes an hour and a half—taking the crew to about 1:30 in the morning. The opposite end zone is about 35 minutes behind with the logo.
Once the stencil is done, the crew moves to the hashmarks and numbers. The hashes take about 45 minutes; the numbers about an hour. Those happen simultaneously. Another person is painting the border of the field and the lines where the media stand. In all, that one crewman is painting for nearly six hours straight.
At 3 a.m., the crew that had worked the Galaxy game leaves. They’d arrived at the arena at 1 p.m. Saturday, and will be back at 8 a.m. to relieve the overnight group.
The remaining crew paints the midfield helmet logo—a 45-minute job.
At this point, the majority of the work is done. But the grounds crew still has to deal with one scourge: morning dew. Because the work is performed overnight, the paint will not fully dry before dawn. For about three hours, starting at four a.m., a group walks around and fills in any gaps that need to be touched up.
This is when Ilten takes a three-hour power nap.
At 8:30 a.m., rehearsals begin for the NFL game: the anthem, the cheerleaders and halftime shows. The paint is still not dry, and so Ilten and his crew monitor the field, making sure no one mars their work.
“When you have 150 kids in a marching band, there’s always the two or three who weren’t paying attention, and they step [in it] and there’s footprints everywhere,” Ilten says. A crew follows behind with rags touch up the footprints.
The game on this Sunday—a 26-24 Chargers loss—ends around 4 p.m. But there’s more to do. The conversion crew has arrived back at the stadium around 2:30. Once the final whistle blows on the NFL game, that team disassembles the uprights. All the lines, all the logos, all the numbers, all the remnants of an overnight transformation get erased with a power washer.
Ilten leaves the stadium around 7 p.m.—he’s been at work since 1 p.m. the previous day. But he won’t rest when he gets home. Instead, he’ll watch a replay of the game, looking to see how the field held up—if there were any divots, any slippages. He’ll watch for an hour and a half.
“And then,” he says, “I go to sleep.”
He has to. He’ll be back at work Monday morning at 6.
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