The face behind the field

 Nick McKenna, assistant athletics director at A&M, works with a team of skilled turfgrass students and professionals to keep sports fields safe and consistent for student-athletes.
Nick McKenna, assistant athletics director at A&M, works with a team of skilled turfgrass students and professionals to keep sports fields safe and consistent for student-athletes.
Photo by Photo by Fayombami Taiwo

After buzzing into Kyle Field on a Friday afternoon, Assistant Athletics Director Nick McKenna greets a Yell Leader and student workers on his way to his office. With faded white paint and worn-down grass on the home sidelines, McKenna shifts focus from the once pristine green grass at Kyle Field to Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park as baseball season commences.

McKenna works year-round at Texas A&M to oversee the maintenance and staff at all of the playing surfaces teams practice and play on and various landscaping areas around sports facilities. McKenna aims to achieve safe and consistent playing surfaces for all these facilities, often prepping months in advance for the next sporting season to begin.

McKenna and his team mow these surfaces daily, water infield dirt, strategize with fertility and irrigation practices for weather, produce soil samples, monitor compaction and fight weeds, diseases and insects to maintain an essential part of any sport: its field.

As a certified sports field manager with over 15 years of experience in this industry, McKenna provides A&M with more than just green grass.

“A lot of people take for granted what it takes to have Kyle Field prepared,” McKenna said. “They have no understanding of the time and commitment and the knowledge that goes into ensuring that Kyle Field is ready and playable every single weekend of the fall.”

While most people are watching the ball or the players, McKenna’s focus is on the players’ feet.

“I’m usually watching the field … I’m watching the lineman’s feet, I’m watching the running back on an end-around like, ‘can he make a hard plant with his right leg and cut back to the left but not lose his footing or anything?’” McKenna said. “Those are the things that excite us.”

Drew Selensky, assistant director of sports fields, works with McKenna to oversee student workers, prep the sports fields and maintain 8 acres total of turfgrass.

“Yes, we’re a college football stadium or a college baseball stadium, but there’s no reason our standards shouldn’t be the same as the MLB or the NFL too, because ultimately these kids are aspiring to be NFL, MLB professional athletes and there’s no reason that our surface shouldn’t be the same — if not better — than those surfaces,” Selensky said.

In addition to safety and consistency, McKenna and his team also work with the A&M branding team to represent Aggie culture.

Last season, McKenna and his team painted the field red, white and blue for the military appreciation game, switched the maroon and white on the field at the last two Maroon Out football games and added a ribbon to the 50-yard line in remembrance of the Bonfire tragedy.

“The first priority is safety and playability for athletes, but we also have a responsibility to represent Texas A&M, so everything that we do — we want it to be something that Aggies everywhere can be proud of,” McKenna said.

McKenna was raised on a farm in Iowa where he first earned money with his father by mowing lawns, cemeteries and churches. This was his first experience with turfgrass which, combined with his passion for sports, led him to pursue a career in sports field management.

McKenna’s first job out of college was as a general groundskeeper at A&M from 2002 to 2005, which he left to be closer to family.

“[My wife and I] moved back to Iowa to be closer to family,” McKenna said. “After two years I … decided I need to get back on the sports fields and I had always flirted with going back to school.”

McKenna said he and his wife spent four years in Virginia, where he attended Virginia Tech and worked full-time at their athletic department.

“When we left, I told them like I love Texas A&M but for our professional development at this point in time we need to leave,” McKenna said. “[It was a] tough decision to move away cause we really did love it here … and always said if timing is right and opportunity is right, we will happily come back to Aggieland.”

In 2011, McKenna was given the opportunity to return to A&M to join the field staff once again.

“The timing was right and the opportunity was right,” McKenna said. “I jumped at the chance in 2011 and that’s where we’ve been since.”

McKenna said his connection with A&M began when his brother, a then-graduate student, invited him to College Station for Thanksgiving break in 1999, the same day as the Bonfire tragedy.

“It sounds really morbid to say, but I really got to experience Aggieland and the Aggie spirit first hand because of that,” McKenna said. “… He’s very involved in the industry, not just in College Station, but across the country … Students learn a lot of hands-on activities from him.”

Turfgrass science sophomore Aidan Maxwell started working as a student assistant for field staff after being recommended for the position by Straw.

“It’s a great atmosphere that we have over here,” Maxwell said. “I think we have now 16 student workers. We all get along pretty well, and we’re pretty close as a group.”

Maxwell works with McKenna on field and grounds maintenance and had McKenna as a guest lecturer in his Professional Development in Turfgrass course.

“I just think he’s a hardworking guy,” Maxwell said. “He just really loves what he does and who he works with.”

Selensky said McKenna’s intelligence, thoughtfulness and attention to detail allow him to lead a team of knowledgeable coordinators, students and employees.

“He just kind of takes the extra step in everything,” Selensky said. “Our goal is always perfection. We know that we will never reach [perfection], but there’s no reason to not shoot for it every day and he’s really adamant about that.”

Selensky said he appreciates the trust that McKenna has in him and his crew to put all of their efforts into their jobs every day.

“I don’t know that I could ever ask for a better boss. He’s just one of those special ones, where it’s like no matter how much you’re getting paid, you want to work for a guy like that,” Selensky said.

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