Growing up, Elvin Zapata longed for the days when the grass would be greener.
A former baseball player at Carl Schurz High School in Chicago, Zapata remembers sliding into second base and his pants ripping.
"I had rocks in my skin," he said. "They were not safe fields back then."
Now, he is the head groundsman at Oak Park-River Forest High School, which means he oversees every field and playing surface on campus, from the track and tennis courts to the main football and soccer field.
"When you come onto one of our fields here in Oak Park, I know that they're safe fields, because I make it my business to make them safe," he said.
But maintaining the fields is just the beginning of his job description.
In addition to the tireless preparation of his fellow groundsmen for one game – up to three hours for each varsity baseball game, he estimates — Zapata is in charge of snow removal during the winter months and keeping the premises tidy on a daily basis.
It's a lot to handle, he acknowledges, but it's not without purpose.
"It's a lot of responsibility, but as a father, I see these kids like they're my kids," said Zapata, who has worked at the school for more than 20 years. "They should be able to play as hard as they want to play and be safe."
Paying a price
Robert ZumMallen, the school's director of buildings and grounds, said OPRF's budget allocates about $26,000 annually for field maintenance.
Included in that sum is:
- $11,000 to the landscaping company that cuts the grass year-round.
- $10,000 for the organic fertilizer used on the natural grass fields
- $5,000 for the paint applied to both grass and FieldTurf fields.
Another $7,000 is spent every third year on an anti-bacterial that keeps the fields healthy.
The biggest investment, however, was the turf itself.
After the grass on the main field was torn up in 2001, it was replaced with AstroTurf, a coarse artificial surface more closely resembling carpet than grass, Zapata said.
"It didn't work out so well," Zapata said. "What happened was a lot of it was coming up, especially the lines. I had to go out there and literally glue the lines down."
The AstroTurf proved too inefficient and dangerous to student athletes, so school officials opted in 2002 for FieldTurf, a multi-layered surface composed of sand, rubber and monofilament fiber.
Zapata estimates the cost at $500,000 for the installation. That figure actually is a lot closer to $700,000, maintenance excluded, according to FieldTurf.com.
The FieldTurf installation is expected to save the school tens of thousands of dollars, Zapata said. But it also reduces the likelihood of injuries, like the time he slid into second and came up aching.
After decades of service, Zapata says it's all about dedication, both to safety and to the students.
"You've got to love this job," he said.