There’s a new groundskeeper at Milton Town School District, but it’s far from his first rodeo maintaining athletic greens. John “Lee” Keller has lived and breathed grass clippings and field paint for nearly four decades serving the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and even European sporting venues. Most recently, he’s come to Milton to share his expertise and help the district’s fields reach their full potential.
“We really like to see the football field shine,” facilities director Bruce Cheeseman said. “He’s [Keller] helped us a lot.”
Keller joined the MTSD grounds crew two years ago at Cheeseman’s request. Things were changing in his UVM post and he was looking for greener pastures. In Milton, Keller’s helped the crew transform their work methods and improve efficiency. His efforts have helped make the fields some of the best among schools in the state, according to Cheeseman.
Keller began crafting clean greens after graduating college in 1984. Jobs were scarce at the time so he wrote George Toma, a groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals –among other teams and sports– to see if he could join his crew.
Toma obliged and so began Keller’s journey touring around the U.S. and Europe grooming fields for the NFL Super Bowl, MLB spring training and a slew of other games in between.
“I love doing the traveling part of it,” Keller said. “In my wildest dreams I would never have anticipated doing that.”
This month he left the Green Mountain State to work his 20th Super Bowl. His time in Atlanta saw him preparing both Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Falcons, and the facilities at Georgia Tech for the Patriots vs. Rams game.
“They’ve got more chemicals there than our whole budget for mowers and everything for [MTSD],” he said. “It’s amazing. If they needed a new piece of equipment … they get it.”
Keller is one of the first people on the field on Super Bowl Sunday. He gets his equipment through stadium security and busies himself painting logos and ensuring the field lines are accurately spaced. This year, he spent about 10 hours alone crafting the trophy logos that decked the field.
“There’s a lot in that trophy logo,” he said. “Anybody sitting in the stands has no idea what goes into this logo. We could be halfway done [and] it looks just as good as when it’s done.”
But it’s Keller’s care and attention to detail that help make playable fields and provide him the know-how to guide his MTSD coworkers.
Keller’s work, both nationally and internationally, has exposed him to modern technology and tricks that aren’t widely used in Vermont, he said. For example, he helped save MTSD time and money by showing workers how to transplant healthy sod from various parts of school property to the Yellow Jacket’s practice and game fields.
“A lot of my position is showing … you educate,” Keller said. He’s even had a bit more creative control working under Cheeseman than on some of his larger assignments.
“The biggest thing I like [at MTSD] is that they see a lot of potential,” Keller said. “There’s a lot of areas we can improve if the budget allows.”
The FY ’19 budget allotted around $32,000 for ground maintenance and about $64,000 divided between equipment maintenance and purchases, business manager Don Johnson said, adding there’s no significant change in the FY ’20 budget proposal save a measure to restore the equipment purchasing portion to its previous total $60,000.
The grounds crew says MTSD land has experienced marked improvement in recent years. According to Athletic Director Marcel Choquette, the district’s green spaces have made Milton “an icon in the high school athletic community.”
MTSD land encompasses 10 fields, which house its 48 middle and high school teams. The athletes collectively play about 590 games; 50 percent of which take place on home turf, Choquette said.
This year the MTSD grounds crew will set to work as soon as the property thaws. They’ll restore the sod to its previous condition, repaint lines and make additional improvements as the budget allows. Choquette said he’s hopeful this year permits updates to the track team’s jumping pit and and shot put circle.
“I can’t tell you how many administrators from other schools, how many coaches, how many fans would say to me over and over, ‘you guys clearly have the best grass field in the state,’” Choquette said. “Now because we’ve set that bar so high we’re really ambitious to keep it.”