With long hair that stretched down his back, a shirt that had a fertilizer stain and stained khaki pants, Drew Miller walked into a conversation with Brentsville District High School Principal Katherine Meints thinking he would just be giving ideas for how to revamp the school’s agricultural program.
Miller, a sports field manager by trade, graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in crop and soil science, with a focus in turf grass management. He’s worked in the NFL, MLB and with colleges, and though he didn’t have many prepared thoughts for that sit-down meeting several years ago, he left and spoke to his dad about whether he would regret not considering a job at the Prince William County, Virginia, school.
Soon thereafter, he scheduled an interview with the school’s athletic director, and left his job with the New York Mets to lead the turf grass program. Now in his sixth year at the helm, Miller has helped the program win several accolades, such as the Sports Turf Managers Association 2021 National Field of the Year award in the Sporting Grounds Category.
The program had students as part of the first all-female volunteer grounds crew at the Little League Softball World Series last summer, and students will be helping paint the field for the ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, later this year.
“I always get questions from parents — ‘Why are you not working in the NFL? Or why are you not doing this?’ Miller said. “I’ve found my passion here in the classroom. Seeing things like two of my students being on the first-ever all-female grounds crew in the history of sports field management, that moment will forever be one of the greatest in my career.”
When Miller first started, making changes to the program was “a little bumpy,” he said. The school had a 30-year-old greenhouse where a horticulture course would be taught. And as far as supplies, there was a 1990 Weed Eater and a broken push mower.
In his first year, there were 60 students enrolled in the program, which Miller said is the only turf management program in Northern Virginia. Now, there are about 200, and with so many students, a second teacher was hired to help.
“We’ve been able to maintain that number through COVID, which is kind of unheard of when it comes to the world of education,” Miller said.
As freshmen, students manage school grounds, picking weeds and preparing flowers, among other things. Miller said students learn essential skills in their first year because “when you get your first job, you have the grunt work.”
Juniors learn how to operate mowers and other equipment, and seniors take a capstone course, during which they are essentially “the grounds crew of our school.”
For sports events the school hosts, Miller’s students are involved in preparing the field. For junior Liz Rice, that’s the most exciting part of the class. On occasion, she’ll search Instagram posts and ask Miller whether a mowing pattern in the baseball outfield would be feasible.
“Doing the mowing patterns in the outfield is by far my favorite, just getting to experiment with different things,” Rice said.
Miller’s exams aren’t conventional, either. During the last two football home games of the season, Miller observes students working on the field in the press box. The goal, he said, is to determine “whether or not they’re able to execute the product of an NFL field on our field.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Miller was pressed to create an online curriculum for four courses in about a month. He quickly considered hosting guests on Zoom, and called the head groundskeeper of the Baltimore Orioles to see if she’d be open to a virtual field trip. That prompted the program to launch a podcast called Tiger Turf Talk, which has featured conversations with the head groundsman at Wimbledon, the head groundsman at Wembley and other industry professionals.
Miller said the program was created “to bring awareness to the groundskeeper. There are so many things in the world that go unnoticed.”
Senior Dakota Garber said the skills are valuable “even if we don’t end up going into the profession.”
“When we go out and paint other high school fields, or help with their baseball fields, those students might not know how much work we put into their fields,” Garber said. “Their athletes might not understand how much it helps them.”
But for Miller, the program’s goal remains aimed at helping students succeed.
“I’m trying to bring awareness to not just our students, because they become advocates, whether they do this or not, for understanding that there’s so much more to a sports field than just you show up as a fan, it’s set, it’s beautiful, they’re playing on [the field].”
Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.
© 2022 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.