Editor’s note: Rich Anderson is the head baseball coach at Vintage High School.
When plastic grass was installed at the new Memorial Stadium instead of his beloved Bermuda grass, it was just a matter of time.
Times change. The 8-track took over for the vinyl record and the cassette was displaced by the CD before the digital age took over.
Napa Valley Unified School District groundskeeper Tom Howe’s story is like a classic Miles Davis vinyl recording — a timeless sound that resonates.
This time, however, the record isn’t going to be spun again. Howe is putting away his mower for the last time, as he retired in December after 35 years of service at NVUSD.
Retirement is something embraced by all and Howe is no exception, but with his retirement comes the end of an era of sorts.
Memorial Stadium had long been maintained by Howe and once the move to install FieldTurf accompanied the stadium’s renovation in 2010, Howe knew his days as a school district employee were numbered.
“Yeah, it doesn’t take any knowledge or skill to take care of a synthetic field,” Howe said. “It just takes money, and the pride of your work kind of went away with the grass and dirt.”
As one advances in years, advancement in one’s roles comes too — most times welcomed. However, even though Howe deserved more responsibility, these changes took him further away from what he enjoys most — maintaining playing surfaces.
Bureaucratic regulations now dictated that he could no longer simply mow a field or jump in a ditch to fix a broken valve. Howe pondered that notion and said, “Supervisors could no longer be working supervisors. There was no reward in it anymore.”
Before YouTube and Twitter, images were etched in the minds of the storytellers like Howe, who has many stories of athletes and coaches that flow out of him with the patina that only comes with age and experience.
“I started at the school district almost 35 years ago to the day,” said Howe. “I started at Vintage and that is how I became close to those coaches and athletes over there.”
Early years with the district
Just walk through the Napa High School or Vintage High School facilities and Howe paints pictures with sepia tones that can only come from the mind of somebody who has been there and worked closely with the coaches and players of the past.
His first memories are those when he first started as a maintenance worker at Vintage High and was asked to build a relationship with legendary softball coach Norma Hill.
“People were afraid of Norma Hill when I first started there,” said Howe. “She was a fierce competitor and it was my job to go talk to her and see what she needed for the softball field. We hit it off right away — I never had any problems with her.”
The P.E. offices and especially the equipment shed, known as Fort Knox, on the Vintage campus are two areas that bring up the memories of Clarence Tye, Bill Williams and Burl Autry.
The three founding fathers of the Vintage P.E. department and the original coaches of many of the athletic teams are carved into his memory like the Mount Rushmore of Crusher athletics.
Howe chuckles mischievously as he reminisces, “That was a group. They were great to work with and they were so good. I remember one time when CT (Tye’s nickname) was much more serious than normal. I asked him why and he said that they were facing John Bohnet. Bohnet was the famous pitcher from Hogan High School. I asked him what he thought of Bohnet and CT said one word, ‘Outstanding.’ Of course Vintage won 1-0 on a double steal late in the game.”
Over at Napa High, Howe’s alma mater, are memories of many coaches and players.
“I always thought fondly of Mike Brown (former baseball coach and longtime athletic director) and Bob Herlocker (former football and golf coach), but when I think of Napa High I cannot help but think of Frank Humpert.”
Humpert has a long association with Napa High as a teacher, administrator, and the football program.
Memorial Stadium holds a special place in Howe’s mind and maybe more importantly his heart. He explains the connection with the field with carefully chosen words as if he doesn’t want to offend his memory of the old stadium.
“There were times that I would mow it on my own time because it was quiet and I was alone,” Howe said. “You knew how good it would look when you were done and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t getting paid to work — it just was something I loved to do.”
Of course, he remembers the 1980 Vintage-Tracy football game won by Vintage in an overtime thriller.
“That was the grass and dirt field, before we switched it to a sand field,” said Howe, shaking his head as he draws on the memory and mutters Pat Hodge and Russ Orrick’s names before responding again. “Dave Rothwell shoved the guy out of bounds and Vintage won in triple overtime, 41-40. Tracy went for two and the guy was shoved out in the northeast corner of the field.”
Another vivid memory is the Rich Harbison game of 1982, where Napa and Vintage clashed. Both teams came in with 9-0 records, with only the winner moving on to the playoffs. Napa High won on a Harbison touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
“I was standing in the end zone. I never ever really sat down during the games and he scored in the southeast end zone as I remember. Les Franco was at Vintage when I first started and he was the head coach of Napa at the time.”
Memorial Stadium a work in progress
Whether it is a fond memory or perhaps it just seems comical now, Howe remembers when the stadium wasn’t one of the top-ranked facilities in the country for high school sports.
In fact, he remembers when there was no grass at all on the playing surface late into the season in the early ’80s.
“There are actually two things that come to mind. One before we put in the sand and one after we made the move to a sand base. The first time was when Napa was playing Grace Davis in the playoffs. I think it was Craig Lundeen’s junior year and the field was so muddy from the rain that it was unplayable.
“Franco and Humpert came over to the stadium and people were already finding seats. They asked me what we were going to do. Well, we moved the game over to Vacaville High School. Everybody loaded up and they changed the start time. They had to get people out of bed over there to line the field.
“The other time was around ’83 or ’84 and we had just switched to a sand-based field, but we planted a blue/rye mix and it just didn’t hold up. By the end of the year all that was left was sand, so we got a giant construction roller and I would just roll it flat and water it down before the games. However, during one of the Big Games it needed to be done at halftime because the surface was all chewed up. Nobody wanted to make the call, but finally Autry says, ‘Do it! The people love seeing that thing.’ So, I went out and rolled it flat,” Howe said.
The memories of amazing people and great teams easily come to mind, but Howe has vivid memories of disaster or disasters barely averted, too.
“CT had a broken valve by third base and it needed to be fixed, but he didn’t want to stop practice, so he tells me to fix it,” said Howe. “He yells at his best player to stand in front of me and protect me while the team took batting practice. He told the kid, ‘Don’t you let Tom get hurt’ in the sternest voice you can imagine.”
Bill Williams was probably the guy Howe was closest to. He tells a story of how Williams used to drag the track with his wife’s Chevy Caprice and when asked what color the car was, he laughed and said, “Cinder red once he was done with it.”
Howe remembers another time where Williams had made his own padding for the high jump pit and somebody lit it on fire during school. Williams took off running with a hose to put it out but the hose was about five feet too short.
“He flipped up about five feet in the air and landed flat on his back. He wanted to kill whoever started that fire.”
Thirty-plus years isn’t just a marker to say it is time to retire. It marks a lifetime of relationships built and a legacy forged.
“Legacy? What legacy? I just really remember all the coaches and co-workers I have befriended over the years,” said Howe.
Every career includes moments to reflect and acknowledge exceptional times, and Howe’s is no different.
“Those early years with Vintage were so great, but so was the time when the stadium was still grass. I remember when we switched to Bermuda and we used stolons at first. It took two or three years before it fully took. I used to love it when opposing teams came into the stadium and they thought the field was fake or AstroTurf because it looked so perfect,” Howe said.
Howe also had to cope with the Napa/Vintage rivalry — and being such a mild-mannered guy, it wasn’t always comfortable for him.
“Of course, if I was going to Vintage I would take off my Napa hat and if I went to Napa I tried to remember to remove my Vintage hat, but it wasn’t favoritism or anything. It was really just whatever hat wasn’t dirty or greasy,” Howe said.
Moving on to Silver and Black pastures
Howe has felt heartache before and realizes that the pain of losing something you love can unknowingly turn into a dream.
When the Oakland Raiders fled the Bay Area for the palm trees of Los Angeles in 1982, Howe, like many other diehard fans, felt the sting of loss, but little did he know the move would eventually create his dream job.
“When they moved back in ’95 I had no idea that they would train in Napa,” said Howe. “But John Herrera and Al Davis were looking for a place that had a field and a hotel. Well, it was easy to find a nice field with no hotel, but finding a hotel with access to a field was different. The field at Redwood Middle School was only a fence away from the Marriott and they picked that spot.”
His dream of having his team come back was coupled with the fact that he would be able to maintain the playing surface while the Raiders were in town.
“That fact really kept me going for years, to be honest,” said Howe.
The Raiders first became aware of Howe when he started caring for the field at Redwood. However, the organization was unaware of the top-notch facility just a few miles away at Memorial Stadium.
One day while Howe was grooming the field, Hall of Famer Willie Brown showed up. Howe jumped off his mower and yelled in the direction of Brown, “Pick six off off Tarkenton in the Super Bowl,” an indication that Howe was aware of the greatness of the former player.
Brown and Howe chatted for a while and the idea of having a family day at the stadium was hatched. However, the Raiders players weren’t convinced that they should be playing on some high school field. Howe remembers weeks later, as the players showed up on the bus and then unloaded, Brown stood by the cyclone fencing as they filed in and just kept saying, “See, I told you so.”
Pride bubbles out of the normally reserved Howe in the telling of the story, but a twinge of sadness also slips into Howe’s voice and a clear love of nostalgia colors all of his narratives.
His work on the stadium before the conversion and his upkeep on the turf at Redwood obviously left a lasting impression with the Raiders brass. Howe is old school, and this quality is very attractive in the new culture of technology.
His style is less “Moneyball” and more “Grapes of Wrath.” He is more likely to get caught reading the “Farmers Almanac” than he would reading a data base crunched out by some techie who has never even been in the seat of a mower or top-dressed a field.
His knowledge of turf and turf management are self-taught. Trial and error mixed with many hours of reading, investigating and experimenting is how he educated himself. His expertise is from putting his fingers into the dirt and agonizing about overuse, moles and gophers, seed germination, broken sprinkler heads, and weather patterns.
His unassuming nature, along with his vast knowledge, made him a favorite of those who worked with him. His nickname “Dude of Turf” sounds more like a character from the Black Hole at the Raiders’ home field at the Oakland Coliseum than a quietly dressed groundskeeper from Napa.
This selfless attitude, and Howe’s ability to deflect any praise directed his way, make him so endearing and easy to work with.
As Howe was making the final decision on retiring this past year, he received a phone call from the Raiders front office. The organization asked Howe if he was contemplating retirement.
Howe informed the Raiders that he had already turned in his official retirement papers. Howe felt this would end his association with the Raiders, but in a career full of some tough moments and ironic twists, Howe was about to get an offer that he had often thought of, but never really believed would happen.
The Raiders organization was well aware of Howe’s abilities as a groundskeeper and offered him a job as head groundskeeper at the Raiders’ training facility in Alameda. Howe had just retired, but didn’t need any time to take the offer — he starts work in February.
“I don’t even feel like I have retired,” said Howe. “I just feel like I am on vacation. I guess I really haven’t retired with this new job offer. I am not quite sure what to think or how it will even work out, but it has taken away the sting of leaving the school district because I know I will once again be able to create and tend to the thing I love most — real grass.”