Bill O’Boyle: Toma back on the job at Super Bowl LVII

Jan. 22—WILKES-BARRE — As he has been for the last 57 years, Edwardsville native George "The Sod God" Toma will be heading the grounds crew at the Super Bowl.

Toma will turn 94 on Feb. 2, and although he said he has slowed down a little, this Nitty Gritty Dirt Man will be at Super Bowl LVII on Feb. 12, and the field will look spectacular.

Toma would have it no other way.

This year's big game will be hosted at State Farm Stadium in Glendale Ariz. — the home stadium of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals.

I talked to Toma this week as he was packing for his trip — first heading to Salt Lake City, Utah, for the STMA (Sports Turf Managers Association) annual conference.

Toma is one of the founders of STMA, one of its supporters and he has served and continues to serve as a mentor for many of those in the sports turf industry.

STMA says in its conference brochure that "Toma continues to emphasize the importance of the entire crew in effective sports turf management. He also has proven that starting from the ground up, it's possible to achieve your highest goals — if you love what you do and give it your all" — and as Toma always says, "and then some."

To honor all that Toma has achieved — and that list is extraordinary — and to keep the "and then some" spirit growing and thriving within STMA, the organization established the George Toma Golden Rake Award — awarded annually to someone who is on that quest to reach their goals.

"The George Toma Golden Rake Award acknowledges the superior performance of a sports turf crew member in 'on the job' activities and in community service," STMA states.

When we talked this week, Toma remained proud and grateful for having been inducted into the Luzerne County Sports Hall of Fame John Louis Popple Chapter with 13 other deserving local sports notables.

The event was held at the Best Western Genetti Hotel and Conference Center in Wilkes-Barre. Jim Martin, chapter president, presented the incoming class.

When Toma arrived in town, he was sure to visit Artillery Park and he was honored by Edwardsville Borough Council.

In his speech at the Hall of Fame dinner, Toma was sure to let the crowd know that even though he has lived in Kansas City since the mid-1950s, Wyoming Valley will always be his home. Toma wore a Super Bowl hat that clearly proves his love of Edwardsville and Wyoming Valley.

"Right on the side, it says George Toma, Edwardsville, PA," Toma told the crowd. "The fingerprints of everyone from Wyoming Valley are on every blade of grass of every Super Bowl. This will always be the Valley With a Heart."

When he finished, Toma received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Toma visited the former Artillery Park this summer, and he recalled the good old days when the park was the home of the Class A baseball Wilkes-Barre Barons.

Toma learned his trade at Artillery Park in Kingston under the tutelage of his Edwardsville neighbor, Stan Scheckler, when Toma was a high school teenager. That knowledge sent him on a storied career.

Toma grew up on Swallow Street in Edwardsville His father died when George was 10. Scheckler, who lived across the street from the Tomas, worked as groundskeeper for the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the Class A Eastern League.

In 1946, Toma became head groundskeeper at Artillery Park. He held the position until 1950 when he entered the military and went to Korea.

As Toma walked onto Artillery Park, he recalled the old stadium — he pointed to where the rest rooms were, the bullpens behind the bleachers, the pump house, the offices in the center of the old grandstand, the trolley repair shop behind the third base line and the 109th Field Artillery horses.

Toma said he could close his eyes and go back in time and hear the roar of the crowd as the Wilkes-Barre Barons took the field.

"This was real baseball in this ballpark," Toma said. "Those memories are still very much alive with me. This is coming home for me."

Toma has a deep love for "the Valley with a Heart" — and he loves Polish food. He told me he received a package of Polish food for Christmas and he savored every morsel.

A few years ago, Toma laid out a Wiffle Ball field in his neighbor's back yard in Kansas City. Every year, that field hosts a tournament for charity, and it has raised several hundreds of thousands of dollars for veterans programs.

I have many memories of George and we've have many conversations, but there is one memory that I will never forget.

When he stood in Artillery Park this summer, Toma said, "This is my home. The Valley With A Heart is where I tell everybody I'm from. The people here are like family. If it weren't for what I learned here at this place, I wouldn't be where I am today. This will always be my hometown."

And George Toma will always be our beloved native son.

Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.