Johnny Payne never imagined he was a celebrity, but rather just someone who has always delivered an honest day’s work ever since the University of Tennessee hired him in 1978.
But last summer when he was on a Caribbean cruise, Payne and his family happened to be on a tour bus with some vacationers from Tennessee and Alabama.
“I wasn’t saying anything, just sitting there,” Payne says, “but my son said, `My Dad is the one who paints the checkerboard end zones at Tennessee.’ ”
You would have thought Peyton Manning had jumped aboard.
“It blew their minds,” Payne says.
Until this season when Payne got in demand around the UT campus to paint this and that as the school’s senior sign painter, he had been the Vols’ Rocky Top Michelangelo. His primary job was carefully painting probably the most famous end zone design in college football.
Now, Payne turned those duties over to Myron Roach, a third-generation Neyland Stadium groundskeeper, who found out in his very first game this season that Vols’ fans take their checkerboard end zones very serious.
“It has to stay the same or you have a bunch of people ring your phone off the hook,” Roach says. “The first home game, the shade of orange in the end zones was off just a little. It was the way we mixed it. We didn’t think anybody noticed it, but we had a complaint on the website that the orange was the wrong color.”
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? To the average person, it does.
But to Payne, 50, who went to work for UT straight out of high school, and Roach, 48, who quit high school and was 14 years old when he went to work for his dad who was the Neyland groundskeeper that replaced Roach’s grandfather, such fanaticism and loyalty is expected.
Bob Campbell, retired University of Tennessee's director of sports surface management, once said he never realized the distinctiveness of the checkerboard end zones until several years ago. That's when a friend who works at Iowa State told him someone conducted a poll in Des Moines of the most recognizable sports venues in the country.
"There was Yankee Stadium on the list," Campbell said. "And Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. And darn it, if our checkerboard end zones weren't in the top 10!"
The idea for the Vols’ checkerboard end zones came from former Tennessee football coach and athletic director Doug Dickey. When Dickey took over as coach in 1964, he had the end zones painted with the checkerboards.
"I got the idea to use checkerboard when I saw it in a magazine, maybe in an ad," recalls Dickey, who’s retired. "The design caught my eye and I thought we needed to dress up the stadium. It was drab and we needed some color.
“People liked the checkerboard end zones, and it's nice to have an identifying product that's lasted over the years."
There’s also the fact that Dickey may have subconsciously gotten the checkerboard idea from the fact Birmingham’s Legion Field used to have checkerboard end zones dating back to the 1940s.
But those eventually disappeared, and so did Tennessee’s for a 21-year period, from 1968 when artificial turf was installed, to 1989 when new artificial turf was placed down. That’s when the checkerboards returned.
Not having a football field to paint, mow and nurture was a tough thing for a groundskeeper, like a window washer living in a town with no skyscrapers.
“We had the baseball field and other venues,” Roach says. “But you want a football field to take care of.”
When natural grass replaced the artificial turf in Neyland in 1994, just in time for a young pup quarterback named Peyton Manning to show up for his freshman year, the checkerboards got a fresh design.
Campbell and Payne put their heads together to design a new checkerboard end zone. The checkerboard that had been on the artificial turf filled the entire end zone, so why not show a little of that natural green grass?
On a piece of paper, Campbell and Payne figured the end zones were 160 feet wide by 30 feet long. That’s enough for four rows of squares and a 5-foot border of green around the checkerboard.
The theory was that a green border between the checkerboard and the end lines and sidelines would better help officiating crews decide whether a player was in or out-of-bounds.
"And it just looks good," Campbell once explained. "The green sort of frames it. The first time we painted the new design, Coach Dickey came down, looked at it and said, 'That'll do.' "
Campbell got the precise shade of orange for the end zone paint by working closely with World Class Athletic Surfaces of Leland, Miss. The people at World Class probably got a bit confused once they went to the UT equipment room to find the shade of orange they wanted.
"They came and got a 'T' of a helmet, a jersey and pants with the orange stripe," Campbell said, and “all those shades of orange were different. We settled on the 'T' shade of orange. The World Class folks went back mixed it over and over and tested it by spraying it on grass.”
Like Payne did for 16 years, every Wednesday and Thursday before a home game, Roach paints the end zones with the help of two aides who move the square templates.
The process takes three to four hours each day, because the white squares are painted one day and orange squares are painted the next.
Why? Because when you paint one square, you wouldn't have any place to stand if you painted the square next to it.
Each end zone contains 120 5-foot-by-5-foot squares. Roach has a square sheet metal template his helpers place down on the grass and spray paints two coats in the square.
"I remember the first time I painted it, I was a little nervous about it," Payne says. "The one thing Bobby told me is 'you can't make this grass look like artificial surface.' That's why I painted it with two coats."
It costs $800 worth of paint per home game – 20 gallons at $40 per gallon – to paint the checkerboards.
This season, the checkerboards have stayed the same, but there’s now a five to six-foot solid white border all the way around the field, from the sidelines to the end lines. Again, it was something new added to make it visually easier for players and officials to know where they are on bang-bang sideline judgment plays.
Payne says there are times he misses painting the checkerboards – if you’re scoring at home, Payne painted 25,440 squares before hanging up his spraypainter (that’s four rows of 30 squares per end zone, 240 squares per game multiplied by 106 home games). But Payne thinks Roach, who already had experience of painting logos on the field, is so good you can’t tell the difference that a new painter is handling Tennessee’s most precious canvas.
"The thing that always amazed me is we’ve had people call from all over the country who want to paint their end zones like us to find out how we paint them," Payne says. “I’ll just draw it up on a piece of paper and fax it to 'em. It’s easier than trying to explain it to them."