Dozer Park was quiet on Super Bowl Sunday. The polar vortex of the previous week had vacated the Midwest, leaving temperatures in Peoria, Illinois, in the upper-40s for most of that day. But baseball was far off. Nearly 700 miles south, the man in charge of taking care of that field was at the center of the sports universe and, for the briefest of moments, became part of its worldwide telecast.
Mike Reno, head groundskeeper for the Class A Peoria Chiefs, has spent his career preparing fields where legends are made, a journey he embarked on while at Arizona State University in the early 2000s. It was a busy time at Sun Devil Stadium, which was hosting ASU football, the NFL's Arizona Cardinals and bowl games. In Tempe, Reno's path merged with some of the biggest moments in sports. Arizona State field chiefs Peter Wozniak and Brian Johnson quickly spotted something in the youngster.
"I like to work hard," Reno said, juggling a phone interview while keeping an eye on his three kids at home just outside Peoria. "I like to be the hardest worker out there if I can. Some people can beat me, but it's kind of like a game for me just to try to do the most that I can."
After the 2001 NFL season, Reno was selected to join Wozniak and a crew headed to work Super Bowl XXXVI. He's rarely missed one since. That first matchup was between the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams. Two weeks ago, it was a rematch of the same two franchises.
"I don't see football as much as I used to," Reno said. "I see maybe three or four games every year, and it blows me away how big [the events] are every time I see them. The halftime show is pretty crazy. That's not something you see every day. And we usually do new stadiums, so every year I go to a new stadium, I'm more and more amazed. The engineering and architecture like that roof [at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta] this year was really cool to see. I got to go up and walk on top of it and look at it from the inside. It's a crazy engineering feat.
"I think every year, it's always an eye-opening experience."
The kick is up...
In late January and early February, Reno joined his usual crew of about 30, including field luminaries like Ed Mangan and 90-year-old George Toma (who, Reno said, "works harder than a lot of other guys"), to prepare Mercedes-Benz Stadium for another Patriots-Rams showdown.
Super Bowl LIII was a treat for lovers of punts, bad Maroon 5 jokes on Twitter and watching the NFL's rich get richer. But before the Patriots finished with their sixth ring, it was a tense one. New England led the lowest-scoring game in Super Bowl history, 3-0, going into the halftime show. At the 2:11 mark of the third quarter, Los Angeles kicker Greg Zuerlein drilled a 53-yard field goal to level the score. On the receiving end of that boot was Reno.
"We were watching the game, and I usually just operate the net or make sure the net goes up or down before field goals," he said. "I was just standing there and he kicked it right to me."
Back in Peoria, Chiefs staffers were watching. Moments after Zuerlein's kick sailed through the uprights, a screenshot appeared on the team's Twitter feed.
"I couldn't believe they recognized me, because you're pixelated when you're that far away, you know?" Reno laughed. "... I like catching and throwing footballs, so it's always fun for me, but I didn't think that my phone was going to blow up after I caught a field goal."
During his time at ASU and in the years after, Reno's career blossomed. In 2003, Sun Devil Stadium hosted the first BCS national championship game, a triple-overtime thriller between the Miami Hurricanes and the eventual-national champion Ohio State Buckeyes. Two years later, he was in Mexico City as the Cardinals took down the San Francisco 49ers. At Azteca Stadium, he helped build goal posts, measure out yard lines and paint the surface for the NFL's first regular season game outside the United States. Such events have become fixtures on the NFL's calendar, and Reno is almost always there for them.
After graduation, his work took him to Washington, D.C., on an NFL internship, back to ASU, then to Miami, where he worked at one of the busiest venues in sports. The facility now known as Hard Rock Stadium hosted the Miami Dolphins, Hurricanes and Florida Marlins, as well as the 2009 BCS national championship game and many other events, during Reno's tenure.
"I worked so much that I think my pay for the year was a third overtime," he said.
Miami kept Reno busy, but his -- and his family's -- future was elsewhere. Reno's wife, Nicole, worked for construction equipment giant Caterpillar, and in 2011, the two were on the move.
"We were happy there [in Miami]," he said. "I had just gotten the job as the assistant in Miami, and then she got transferred back to Peoria. Groundskeepers don't do as well as other occupations, so we had to go with her job."
From the beaches of South Florida, the Renos headed to the fields of the Midwest. Soon, the Chiefs found their man. After starting his career in part with the Arizona Cardinals, Reno became the head groundskeeper for the Class A affiliate of the St. Louis variety. But though the demands of the Midwest League are rigorous, offseasons still provide him an opportunity to stay involved in gridiron projects.
"...You start with baseball, and it was hard work, and it was rewarding because you get done and the field looked beautiful with the mow pattern and edging and just a lot of work with the clay and all that," Reno said. "Halfway through baseball season, you're like, 'Alright, I'm ready for football. I'm beat down. I need a little break here.' Football would come, and you go through the first half of the season and paint logos and all that, keeping the grass healthy and sodding the guts and all that and then you're like, 'Alright, this is getting mundane. It's time for a challenge again. I can't wait for baseball to come around.' So it's kind of a cycle."
Offseason MiLB include
Alongside Super Bowls, the NFL's International Series has become an annual work engagement for Reno. Recently, that has meant trips across the Atlantic to London, where the league has played 23 games since 2007, including multiple contests in each season since 2013. The undertaking is mammoth.
"This year we had three games, and I did all three," Reno said. "Usually we bounce around between a few stadiums, but this year was all Wembley [Stadium], because they didn't have the new stadium built yet. I got here about a week and a half before the first game and left a little less than a month later.
"When we get there, we go straight to the practice facilities and get those places ready to go. ... We have all this stuff stored over there, and then we also ship a few things over. I have to find that stuff and divvy it up to whatever place it goes to. Luckily, we've been there for 10 years now, so we're kind of friends with a lot of people out there in the shipping companies and storage companies and the home venues, hotels. We kind of know what we're doing now."
Once on the ground, Reno and his crew transport equipment, prepare practice fields and set up the game surface. It's an arduous task in facilities and stadiums that already have home tenants.
"Practice sites are either golf courses with some land dedicated for other sports or Premier League facilities," he said. "It's almost like a peace process when we're over there because, there's no respect for American football. At first, there's a lot of pushback, but once [local facility personnel] understand that you're a groundskeeper just like they are, it's about the field. But ... the first year or two was kind of rough."
Reno's tasks regularly involve painting end zones, a project that was met with resistance across the pond.
"They don't want a lot of paint down, and if it is going down, they want it to be the bare minimum," he said. "The first year, I think we did full end zones. We might have done full end zones once or twice after that, but eventually the NFL got the idea that Wembley and the other [facilities], they don't want paint to have to wash out. It's hard to fix that grass out there, because it's a different type of grass. It's rye grass only, so it's real easy to kill. You step anywhere, and your footprint's going to stay there a little while. Over here, we have Bermuda and bluegrass, and it's real durable. It's a different situation over there."
It's been over a week since Reno's brush with an international TV audience, and back home with Nicole and kids Alexavier (7), Everley (4) and Zayne (1), the groundskeeper is getting set for spring.
"I'm going to start going in [to Dozer Park] this week," he said. "We're not going to work outside, obviously, but I think I've got some indoor mound work and cleaning and ordering stuff. When I have to actually start getting going is the early part of March, because we have a college that plays here, Bradley University."
Bradley's first home game of the year is March 27, and the Chiefs host the Beloit Snappers on April 6. For Reno, the cycle is beginning anew.