Sept. 10, 2003
|Johnny Payne paints the now famous checkerboard endzones prior to each Tennessee home game.|
Johnny Payne takes pride in his job. He knows he has to please over 100,000 people each Saturday, and even more who are watching on television. He doesn't have to be as accurate as a Casey Clausen spiral to a leaping James Banks. He doesn't have to be as tough as a Kevin Simon hit that stops a runner behind the line of scrimmage. But he does have to make things look good.
Payne is the senior sign painter for Tennessee, and he is responsible for painting Neyland Stadium's legendary orange and white checkerboard end zones for football game days, along with the 27-foot wide orange `T' at midfield.
The tradition of orange and white checkerboard end zones began in 1964 with the arrival of Doug Dickey as head coach of the football team. The debut was Oct. 10 against Boston College, a 16-14 Tennessee win. The checkerboards symbolized Tennessee football until 1968 when the natural grass was ripped up and an artificial surface was installed in the stadium. However, the design made a triumphant return in 1989 when it was imbedded into the turf, and later painted on the grass when the natural surface was reinstalled in 1994.
Payne, 44, survived the artificial turf revolution, which cut painting to a bare minimum. But with real grass on the field, Neyland Stadium provides a canvas for Tennessee's Michelangelo. Still, he has a little leeway when it comes to precision. "It doesn't have to be exact," Payne says, "but it better look that way or somebody's going to call. As far as setting it up, as long as you've got a tape measure, some nails and some string, you're ready to go."
Each square of the checkerboard measures 5 feet by 5 feet, leaving a 5-foot wide green band that surrounds the end zone design. The process takes approximately two hours per end zone for each color.
Payne and his colleague Greg Coram begin their masterpiece the Wednesday before each home game. It takes a 120 gallons of orange and white paint to fill both checkerboards. Premium white, a color made by the Mississippi-based company World Class, is sprayed first and allowed to dry for one day. The glossy color contains a blue tint to enhance the brightness of the paint on the field.
On Thursdays, orange is added to complete the checkerboard end zones and the midfield `T.' While the white is a company-made color, the orange used on Tennessee's gridiron is specifically-mixed to match the orange `T' on the Vols' helmets.
The midfield `T' is less strenuous. But the powerful Tennessee logo was nearly the center - make that off-center - of controversy just prior to this year's season opener. Payne and his staff had erected the stakes and string to paint the logo at midfield Thursday before the Vols' game against Fresno State. However, just before bright orange was sprayed on the grass, a problem was spotted - the `T' was centered on the 45-yard line. "We had it measured out," Payne says. "But that's what happens. We were tired and it was late. We're lucky we caught it." He assures, though, that no major accident has occurred since he's been involved with painting the field.
There's more to creating one of the nation's most recognized fields, however, than just spraying some paint.
Payne and Coram, to assure the best look on Shields-Watkins Field, create their artwork with television viewers in mind. "We paint everything toward the west because that's where all the cameras shoot from," Payne says. "We'll shoot from the south so the paint overlaps, and then we'll turn and shoot toward the west for the second coat. That way, it doesn't show any type of pattern."
Planning is also part of Payne's daily routine. The normal painting schedule begins Wednesday, but weather can alter the decoration of the field. Rain pushed painting back a day prior to the Marshall game, and it has forced Payne and his staff to postpone their spraying until Saturday morning for a 7:30 p.m. game. The worst-case scenario, however, would be a total washout the week of a home game. If rain continued until kickoff, "we'd have an ugly field," Payne says. "We couldn't paint it. We've been lucky. We've been close a time or two, but we've always made it. One of these days, it'll get us."
Until that day, Payne and his staff will continue to provide color to one of the most recognizable collegiate football fields in America. There's nothing more precious to Tennessee fans than their orange. For Payne, his smile comes when he sees his artwork on display for the masses each Saturday in Knoxville. "I take pride in all of it," Payne says. So does the Volunteer Nation.