Fifty years before Jim Gerking coaxed Tom Osborne onto a Learjet and kick-started a turf revolution in American sports, he was a kid in the backseat of a Pontiac.
Nebraska City was a social hub in the 1940s, and Gerking’s family drove 20 miles from Talmage to see the movie shows. When they crossed the 11th Street viaduct, Jim looked east out his window, down on the steam engines rolling into the old canning factory.
The plant was a hodgepodge of warehouses, brick buildings and wood buildings, flat roofs and oval roofs, most constructed near the turn of the century.
“There’s not too many old people that remember that,” Gerking says. “There’s a few of us around yet.”
Sometimes his school would take a field trip to the factory. He toured the inside of the plant, saw where they canned beef and gravy and vegetables.
“Never did I think someday I’d own that,” Gerking says.
The past few years, Gerking crossed the viaduct and wondered what he was gonna do with the site. He was in his mid-70s. He was still operating a tire recycling business in Rock Port, Missouri. Time was ticking.
He couldn’t let those 13 ragged buildings stay ragged forever. Especially the wobbly red brick warehouse filled with rolls of AstroTurf.
If only Husker football fans knew what was down there ...
* * *
September 1998. Tom Osborne had just watched — not coached — his first Nebraska football game in 34 years. He was trying to settle into retirement.
One day, a stranger dropped off a VHS tape at Osborne’s Lincoln office. The details are a little fuzzy, but apparently Osborne didn’t think much of it because he didn’t respond.
Jim Gerking didn’t give up. He left a message for the coach, then another, something about a new kind of turf that uses tire crumbs.
“Finally,” Osborne says, “he just annoyed me enough that I called him up and said, ‘Well Jim, I’m kinda tired of having you write me and call me, so what’s going on?’ ”
Well, it’s kind of a long story.
As Osborne was building Nebraska into a college football giant, Jim and Deanne Gerking were operating grain elevators in four little towns. But the days were long and the world was changing — big terminals came in and farmers bought their own semis. The Gerkings got tired of eating milo dust.
“We were kinda burned out,” Deanne says.
They retreated to their red brick ranch on Highway 67 outside Brock, Nebraska. That’s when they met a German chemical engineering student from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’d done a master’s thesis on tire recycling. Freezing rubber at 260 degrees below zero, shattering it and reducing it to crumbs.
The German discovered that the Gerkings owned warehouses in Nebraska City and wanted to partner with them on a new business.
This kind of thing had always ignited Jim’s entrepreneurial spirit. In ’68, he bought a Wolverine Swamp Buggy in Oregon and drove it back to Nemaha County to apply fertilizer — Gerking owned one of the first liquid floaters in Nebraska.
In ’97, Jim bought out the young German and took over their business, EnTire Recycling. Soon he was pitching his cryogenic rubber to a new Canadian company, FieldTurf.
FieldTurf had installed playing surfaces on the East Coast but hadn’t broken through on the college or professional level. When the Canadians asked Gerking why they should make him a distributor, he said he could probably introduce them to Tom Osborne.
“I was 57 years old,” Gerking says. “I had a little more vinegar than I have now.”
Osborne had never heard of FieldTurf. He didn’t know Jim Gerking “from the man in the moon.” But he did know that Nebraska had played home games on AstroTurf since 1970. And seemingly every season, two or three Huskers tore an ACL.
“When you planted your foot, boy, it just didn’t give,” said Osborne, who also noted the frequent turf burns.
In the fall of ’98, Gerking badgered Osborne and finally earned a call back. The retired coach had watched the VHS tape. What do you want me to do, he said. Gerking invited Osborne to visit a Maryland high school stadium with FieldTurf.
Call me when you have time to go, Osborne said.
“Dr. Tom,” Gerking replied, “you call me when you have time to go.”
* * *
The week before Christmas, for the first time in his life, a grain elevator owner from Nemaha County rented a jet. He made travel plans to Maryland. He ushered Osborne and a few other college coaches, including Creighton baseball’s Jack Dahm.
Osborne wasn’t feeling well that morning — “Jim, if you don’t have room for me, I’ll just stay home.”
No, no. We got room. (He didn’t tell Osborne that if he wasn’t going, nobody was going).
They arrived in Cumberland, Maryland, and met up with the FieldTurf founders. Well, Osborne said, where’s the field?
“You’re standing on it.”
“I really thought I was standing on a grass field,” Osborne says.
The old AstroTurf, Osborne said, had a cement or asphalt base. With age, the pad constricted and got very hard. FieldTurf had a crushed rock or gravel base. The turf lay on top, softened with silica sand and 200,000 pounds of crumb rubber. It had the feel of grass, but the durability of turf.
Osborne was so impressed, two weeks later he held a press conference at the Cornhusker Hotel and announced that he’d purchased stock and become a consultant for FieldTurf.
Gerking warned the guys from FieldTurf: “I don’t know if you’re ready for this — this is small potatoes now — but if Nebraska puts this in, everybody’s gonna want it. You’re gonna go to the big-time in a hurry.”
Next step: a trial run.
In the spring of ’99, Gerking attended a Lincoln Public Schools meeting. LPS had raised $1 million to put in new AstroTurf at Seacrest Field. Gerking pitched something better. And it only costs $600,000.
LPS was skeptical. You’ve never installed one of these fields, they said. What if it falls apart? That’s when the man sitting next to Gerking interjected. “I’ll just personally guarantee it,” Osborne said. If it fails within eight years, Osborne vowed to replace it from his own pocket.
That was the end of the conversation.
* * *
Next stop: Memorial Stadium.
Frank Solich liked the new FieldTurf at Seacrest Field, but if Nebraska was going to install a new surface in time for the ’99 season opener, things had to move fast.
The Board of Regents mandated that any purchase greater than $250,000 necessitated a bid process. So Gerking went to the FieldTurf producers and said they needed to make a “deep discount.” Done.
Gerking wrote the details on two pieces of yellow pad paper. “Today a contract like that would be this thick,” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger.
He needed no engineers. No contractors. Just two installers from Nova Scotia, a few friends and him.
In late July 1999, Gerking’s crew ripped out the AstroTurf at Memorial Stadium, the Huskers’ championship canvas. From 1992-98, they had played 45 home games. Only Texas ’98 beat them. They crushed foes by an average of 35 points. They produced 12 All-Americans and, of course, three national championships.
“One of my construction friends said, ‘Gerking, you realize what we just did? If we don’t get this field back in here, there’s people that’ll kill us.”
The FieldTurf strips, manufactured in Georgia, came to Lincoln in 5-yard rolls — one white yard-line to another.
Gerking’s crew rolled them out, side by side. They held two strips, clamped them, then bound them together at the yard line with handheld sewing machines. Make sure it’s straight!
The crew stayed in Lincoln for three weeks, working dawn to dusk in scorching heat. Jim lost 20 pounds.
One night, he and Deanne were the last ones in the stadium when Osborne went for a run around the field. I’m worried about you, Jim. You need to take care of yourself.
His crew beat the deadline. They painted the numbers white and the “N” red. “We got ’er done.”
On Sept. 11, 1999, Nebraska became the first Division I program to play a game on FieldTurf. Just as Gerking predicted, business boomed — Osborne sold his stock when he ran for Congress.
Over the next 15 years, thousands of football fields across the country ditched their AstroTurf for synthetic grass. Crumb rubber fields are a potential health risk according to critics, but there is little evidence.
The Gerkings installed seven or eight more fields, including one at Osborne’s alma mater, Hastings College. In 2003, they decided they weren’t cut out for the installation business anymore. They went back to producing crumb rubber full-time.
They go through 5,000-6,000 tires a day. They sell it across the continent, from the Navajo reservation baseball fields in Arizona to World Cup soccer fields in Canada.
But every time Jim crossed the viaduct in Nebraska City, he knew he had unfinished business.
* * *
Remember the two sheets of yellow pad paper? Part of Gerking’s contract with UNL awarded him possession of the old AstroTurf. At the time, he didn’t know if it was worth the trouble, but he didn’t want to take it to the dump.
Jim and Deanne bought a building in Nebraska City, where they housed the 60-80 rolls. It wasn’t just Memorial Stadium’s AstroTurf, it was Nebraska’s practice fields from Cook Pavilion and Schulte Field House.
Over the years, Jim moved the rolls to a few different warehouses. He sold turf to local schools for their weight rooms. He gave some of his best Cook Pavilion pieces to a friend in Brownville, who put them on his riverboat.
But the Gerkings never marketed the whole inventory. They kept the most prominent pieces from Memorial Stadium.
What should they do?
Last fall, Jim and Deanne finally made a decision. They sold the warehouse. They called the TeamMates office in Omaha and offered to donate the famous turf, including the “N” at midfield and the end zone letters.
The same day, coincidentally, TeamMates reached out to them requesting a few pieces for souvenirs.
“God must have intervened,” Deanne says.
Jim loaded the remaining 25-30 rolls onto four semis bound for Omaha. Friday night at the Embassy Suites La Vista, TeamMates will auction off 10 pieces at its annual gala; another 30 pieces will be available online next week at TeamMates.org.
Somewhere on a Nebraska hill, Jim envisions “H U S K E R S” in red AstroTurf. Wouldn’t that be neat?
If nothing else, he says, every fan should have an AstroTurf scrub brush. “You can’t wear that thing out. It’s tough.”
So is he.
The Gerkings, caked in milo dust, could’ve retired to the home they built atop a hill west of Brock. Could’ve chased four kids, nine grandkids and four great-grandkids. Could’ve watched the sunset over Highway 67 — and their Kansas City Royals on TV.
Instead, they listened to a German master’s student and ended up owning a Husker shrine. How ’bout that.
Friday, the Gerkings will get out of work early. Go home. Dress up. Drive to Omaha and see an old friend. Jim and Tom still get a kick out of how they got together.
“Call me when you have time.”
“No, you call me when you have time.”
Jim’s always been a little sentimental. He gets choked up thinking about it all. Dr. Tom didn’t just take a chance on FieldTurf. He took a chance on Jim. Now it’s time to pay it back.
“The stars finally aligned,” Jim says. “We need to get the turf to some new Husker fans.”
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