Pele once said that the very best field on which he played in his career was at Wembley Stadium in London, which makes sense. England is the birthplace of the sport and Wembley is the nation’s most hallowed and important ground. However, Pele also said that the second best field he ever played on –– better even than his own Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro –– was Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, which makes quite a bit less sense.

The original Wembley Stadium could protect its field because it never hosted a full season of club matches, only infrequent special events. When Pele played in Kansas City during his NASL seasons in the 1960s, Municipal Stadium hosted entire seasons for teams in three different sports, and received nothing even close to the national support that Wembley enjoyed in England. Municipal Stadium was a ground hallowed only by a 5’1” Italian man from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, named George Toma.

George Toma NFL - Adsum

Toma’s career as a groundskeeper began at 13-years-old, after the death of his father forced the young Toma to find work with the grounds crew at the minor league ballpark in Wilkes-Barre. By 17, Toma was the head groundskeeper. At age 28, in 1957, he became the head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Athletics of Major League Baseball, a job he accepted precisely because the A’s and Municipal Stadium had such a notoriously poor history of groundskeeping.

Young George Toma - Adsum
A young George Toma waters the grass with Harvey the Rabbit - two icons in the history of Kansas City Baseball.

When the NFL’s Chiefs came to Kansas City in 1963 and joined the A’s in Municipal Stadium, Toma took on year-round double duty. When the NASL’s Kansas City Spurs moved into the stadium in 1968, and the Royals replaced the A’s in 1969, Toma took on triple-duty. When the Royals and Chiefs moved to Kauffman Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium, respectively, Toma took on handling full time groundskeeping duties for two stadiums. When those stadiums converted to Astroturf in the 1970s, Toma applied the same attention to detail that he had applied to studying natural grass, and quickly became one of the foremost experts in Astroturf maintenance.

Meanwhile, he also served as the head groundskeeper for the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games, the 1994 World Cup, and every Super Bowl in history, including the most recent, won by Toma’s hometown Chiefs on his 91st birthday.

To work in a single field from age 13 until age 91 and become an internationally celebrated master who counts Paul McCartney and Pele among his friends is the life of a great artist, not typically a guy who drives around in a Gator, carrying a rake and wearing softball shorts. However, that’s the genius of George Toma. With a rake and a Gator, wearing softball shorts, he can do what few of even the greatest artists ever can do. He can create hallowed ground in Kansas City, Wilkes-Barre, or anywhere in between.