When Sean McLaughlin was 10 years old, his father taught him how to mow the lawns at their family’s Chino Hills home.
For $5 a week, McLaughlin cut the grass where he played football with his brothers. Soon mowing the lawn became a point of pride for him: he wanted to make sure his family’s lawns were the best in the neighborhood.
Today, McLaughlin is studying plant science at Cal Poly Pomona and preparing to travel next month to Super Bowl LI in Houston, where he will be the only college student in the United States to participate in its annual Super Bowl Sports Turfgrass Training Program. He will assist the grounds crew in preparing and maintaining the practice fields and the field at NRG Stadium, which will host the Super Bowl.
“When I found I had won, I was shocked. I knew the competition I was up against,” McLaughlin says. “There are hundreds of smart, passionate, up-and-coming turf professionals at universities across the nation, and I knew it wasn’t an easy choice for the selection committee to make.”
McLaughlin’s selection is more evidence that Cal Poly Pomona plant science students are highly regarded by industry, says Valerie Mellano, chair of the plant science department.
“All of our 2016 graduates who were seeking jobs were able to find one, and many students had multiple job offers,” Mellano says. “Sean is an excellent student, and we’re proud that he was selected for this honor.”
Discovering Turf Management as a Career Option
McLaughlin did not start out wanting to study plant science or turf management.
Instead, he grew up fascinated by weather, particularly thunderstorms. McLaughlin enrolled in Mt. SAC to complete his general education requirements with the intention of transferring to the University of Oklahoma and earning his bachelor’s degree in meteorology. Oklahoma is in Tornado Alley, and it has a facility that houses the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.
But it was an elective course at Mt. SAC that changed the course of McLaughlin’s academic career. He decided to take a soil science class taught by Brian Scott (’91, horticulture; ’06, M.S. agricultural science), a professor and chair of Mt. SAC’s horticulture department.
“What really stood out to me about Professor Scott is that he is extremely passionate about what he teaches,” McLaughlin says. “Not only does he have educational expertise in plant sciences through his studies at Cal Poly Pomona, but he also has years of experience in the field doing various horticultural-related jobs.”
Examples from that real-world experience helped make the theoretical material easier to learn, he adds. Scott also incorporated turfgrass science into the class. Working with turf got McLaughlin, a huge sports fan, hooked on plant science.
“When he informed me that career options in this field called turf management actually existed, I knew it was the perfect fit,” he says.
McLaughlin began managing the turf facility at Mt. SAC and helping Scott with his turf management class, growing samples of different turf varieties for students to identify. For his efforts, he was recognized as the Turf Student of the Year at Mt. SAC.
“He was chosen because of his dedication and hard work,” Scott says. “Sean defines selflessness. On top of it, you will never see him without a smile on his face. He is a truly amazing young man.”
Learning by Doing: Working at CTILT and Stadiums
McLaughlin transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in 2014. He continued to gain experience in turf management, helping install sod at the Rose Bowl for UCLA’s 2015 football season and the 2016 Rose Bowl Game.
In addition to studying for his plant science degree, McLaughlin works at Cal Poly Pomona’s Center for Turfgrass, Irrigation, and Landscape Technology (CTILT), caring for the facility’s 2,000-square-foot putting green, maintaining equipment, fertilizing turf, and spraying for weeds and diseases.
When he’s not on campus, McLaughlin is working for the University of Southern California, helping maintain and prepare the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for USC and Los Angeles Rams football games.
It’s a huge job – one that involves mowing and watering the grass, but also painting the sidelines, goal lines, yard lines, and even the NFL shield. Game days are 12-hour work days that begin with setting up trash cans, pylons, and benches, raising the nets behind the goal posts for kick attempts during the game, and then cleaning, aerating, and mowing the field afterward.
Learning in the classroom, doing research at Mt. SAC and CTILT, and working at the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum are priceless experiences for McLaughlin.
“It is one thing to learn why or how something happens in the classroom and another to actually see why or how it happens in a real-world situation,” he says. “I also feel that being able to work in the field at Mt. SAC and Cal Poly Pomona has allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them without the risk of my mistakes being noticed by 90,000 fans in a stadium and another 20 million viewers on TV.”
The Super Bowl of Turf Management
McLaughlin heard about the Super Bowl internship program too late to apply last year. But he resolved to apply for the position this year, knowing that it would be a great learning experience.
Toro required applicants to apply online and submit a 500-word essay describing where the applicants see themselves professionally in five years. A résumé and reference also were required. On Nov. 30, Toro announced that it had chosen McLaughlin for the program.
McLaughlin will fly to Houston in late January to begin working for Toro, preparing both the NRG Stadium field and practice fields that the participating teams will use at Rice University and the Houston Texans’ practice facility before the Feb. 5 game.
“Our primary duties will be painting logos on the game-day field, painting lines on the game-day field and practice fields, and mowing and repairing the practice fields for both teams,” he says.
Ironically, NRG Stadium has a synthetic turf playing surface. Yet even there, McLaughlin will have a role. Workers will have to groom the artificial playing surface, add crumb rubber if necessary, and cover and uncover the field for half-time entertainment rehearsals.
McLaughlin will get to meet and work with Ed Mangan, the NFL’s field director, and the legendary groundskeeper George Toma, who has prepped every Super Bowl field.
After wrapping up the Super Bowl internship, McLaughlin will graduate from Cal Poly Pomona next spring. He hopes to pursue a master’s degree in turfgrass science, and focus on studying turfgrass diseases.
Ultimately, McLaughlin hopes to become the head groundskeeper of a sports turf field or start his own consulting business for sports fields and golf courses. Whatever happens, he’ll always have the Super Bowl experience under his belt.
“Knowing I was the one turfgrass student in the entire U.S. who gets to join the Super Bowl crew for Super Bowl LI is an indescribable feeling,” he says. “I still don’t think I totally grasp the magnitude of what I get to experience in February.”