The Jets' summer fields of dreams are coming right along, says Blake Hoerr, the guy who knows.
"Cortland is going pretty well," said Hoerr, the Jets' director of fields and grounds. "We've put in a tremendous amount of work and effort into the fields up there. From a home-lawn standpoint, you'd be thrilled."
Yet from an NFL team standpoint, the fields at SUNY Cortland, where the Jets will begin practicing on Friday, July 27 (closed to the public) and Saturday, July 28 (open to the public), still need quality care and feeding, and that's the job of Hoerr, field and grounds manager Matt Henn and assistant Collin Meyers, as well as Dan Dryja and his staff, who are directly in charge of all Cortland's athletic fields, including the football fields when the Jets visit for three weeks each summer.
"Normally we have to go up there ahead of training camp and cut nearly two inches off the leaf tissue to get it down to the one-inch playing height that we prefer," Hoerr said. "Dan already had it cut down quite a bit for us. We didn't have to shock the grass by cutting too much of the leaf tissue off at once.
"But because we weren't on it last year and it didn't get as much wear, and because of the aggressive grass varieties, the matting of the grass had built up to a point where we had to thin it out. So we did what we call verticutting. Basically, instead of cutting the leaf tissue at the top, you cut down into it. Instead of horizontal cutting, you cut vertically."
(The above photo shows a pile of thatch that had been loosened and removed as of June 1.)
Sounds like advanced lawn care, and it is. But Hoerr admits that even after the Jets not journeying to Central New York last year because of the lockout, it's not quite as stressful as it was in 2009 and '10, when he and his team spent so much time in the 13045 Zip code tending to the Cortland fields that they almost had to change home addresses.
"I attribute a lot of that to my counterpart up at Cortland — he's really taken ownership of those fields as well," Hoerr said. "I feel like I have a great support staff there, and my staff here is second-to-none. We've got the guys in place here at the Jets facility to do a great job, and I feel like we are."
The Heat Is On in the Metro Area
You'd only have to check in with general manager Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan to get seconds on that opinion. The three practice fields at the Atlantic Health Training Center are sporting shades of Jets green in a crisp checkerboard cut that looks inviting now and, more important, will be ready to take on the Jets when they return to Florham Park, N.J., beginning the week of Aug. 20 (with the fans able to watch the last open practices of summer on Aug. 23-24 as well as at Hofstra University on Aug. 21).
The early heat can be an issue for folks trying to keep their lawns going, but Hoerr and his team are rolling with the 90° weather of late.
"Even though it has been hot and dry, we have the benefit of not having to face the wear from the team practicing, but we're battling Mother Nature," he said. "There are some pH issues going on with the irrigation water we use, so we're trying to counterbalance that with some applications of different fertilizers that we use in order to suppress diseases that relate to high pH conditions in the soil."
Turning technical again, Hoerr explained that this becomes a delicate balancing act for football teams trying to keep their practice fields vibrant through the summer.
"At this time of year, it's tough to adjust soil pH's in a big swing, because the type of fertilizers that can do that don't go together very well with very hot temperatures. It can become very volatile," he said. "We have to kind of spoon-feed it, by lightly applying a little bit more on a weekly basis to get very small results and slowly try to adjust things for these summer months. We're kind of counteracting that with the irrigation. It's more about making moves in the fall and spring and stabilizing things in the summer."
The Green Team in Many Ways
Hoerr, 35, has had some different fields of endeavor in his short and successful career. Graduating from the University of Illinois with his degree in turfgrass management, he got things growing with the Mariners and Orioles. Then came three years working on the grounds at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which included coordinating with the Secret Service for President Ronald Reagan's funeral. He spent a year as an assistant with the Ravens before coming to the Jets (well ahead of Ryan) in 2006.
This Jets gig is pretty nice For one thing, there's MetLife Stadium, which, while its covering is FieldTurf, still falls under the purview of Hoerr and his staff. Then there's the 300,000 square feet of grass to practice on — "Nobody I've seen has that much space," he said. "Last year we had training camp here, we practiced n the fields through the last week of the season, and I would say we still had probably 80, 85 percent coverage down the middle of the fields."
And there is the NYJ organization itself, which helps Hoerr keep things as green as possible.
"They're just very easy and supportive," he said. "It's the equipment staff assisting the coaching staff, allowing them to move and rotate play. It's Rex understanding that playing when it's pouring down rain is detrimental to the field. He's very agreeable to moving inside. It's the strength and conditioning staff — where they do their drills also assists us. And it's the resources. When we need something, Mr. Johnson's great about getting it."
Soon it'll be time for the Jets to put the handiwork of Hoerr and is team to the test, and they'll use that firm footing to spring into the fall.