Alumnus finds the grass is greener in sports turf management
C.J. Buck ’16 said Virginia Tech helped propel him toward a “dream” career in sports turf management with the Philadelphia Union.
C.J. Buck is an expert in his field. Literally.
As the head sports turf manager at Subaru Park, home of the Philadelphia Union, Buck is the lead groundskeeper in charge of maintaining and caring for a 97,700-square-foot Major League Soccer field and over 7 acres of professional-grade practice pitches.
It’s a job he set his sights on as a high school student from Suffolk while attending the Governor’s School for Agriculture, a summer program at Virginia Tech.
“The instructors took us on a tour of Tech’s sporting facilities,” Buck said. “They talked to us about the sports and the grounds and how growing and maintaining the grass could be a career. That was the first I’d ever heard of it, but it piqued my interest, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Buck applied early decision to Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and went on to earn his degree in crop and soil sciences in 2016 with a minor in horticulture.
As a student, he held research assistant positions with the Turfgrass Research Center and the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center. He also got his start in groundskeeping, working with Virginia Tech’s grounds crew at Lane Stadium, Thompson Field, English Field, and Virginia Tech Softball Park and with the Salem Red Sox at Memorial Ballpark.
It was at the 2017 annual conference of the Sports Turf Managers Association where Buck met the two men who would become his next employers. The first was John Torres, who was then the head groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Union. Torres didn’t have a job available, but he was willing to sit down and interview Buck for future opportunities. Buck also spoke with Dan Bergstrom, the director of sports turf and grounds for the Houston Dynamo.
Bergstrom offered Buck a job as the assistant groundskeeper with the Houston Dynamo soccer club, where he learned a lot about warm season turf and the work it takes to maintain a high-traffic field through relentless playing schedules of Major League Soccer, National Women’s Soccer League, and college football. Buck loved the job but missed his family in Virginia and his now wife, Brittany, who was in graduate school in Philadelphia.
Later that year, Torres called with a job offer that brought Buck back to the East Coast to work on one of the best playing fields in Major League Soccer. At the Philadelphia Union, Buck served under Torres as an the assistant groundskeeper for three years. When Torres was promoted to director of grounds in 2021, Buck took his place as head groundskeeper.
With the Union, Buck has helped oversee a change from cool-season to warm-season turfgrass and readied the field for nearly 200 matches. In addition to Philadelphia Union training sessions and home matches, he prepares the field for sporting events by Philadelphia Union II (MLS NEXT Pro), the Leagues Cup, Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football Champions League, the U.S. Open Cup, the Premier Lacrosse League, Collegiate Rugby, international friendlies, the U.S. men’s and women’s soccer teams, and the Army-Navy Cup.
Despite long hours and the challenges of maintaining a first-rate field under the pressure of a steady playing schedule, Buck said he has a “dream job.”
“I get the best seat in the house,” Buck said. “I’m right on the sideline for every match.”
Coincidentally or not, the Philadelphia Union has been a rising star over the last five years that Buck has been with the team. Currently ranked third in the Eastern Conference, the Union won the Supporters’ Shield in 2020, earned the No. 1 seed for the Eastern Conference in 2021 and 2022, and made it to the Cup Final in 2022. Since the start of the 2019 campaign, the Union earned the most regular season points of any team, collecting 247 total over 139 matches.
Buck is excited to continue participating in the team’s success on the field. He’s also hoping to pay his own success forward by mentoring other Hokies interested in sports turf management.
“Turf management has repaid me with everything I’ve put into it, which is a lot of great memories and friendships,” he said. “I love what I do and I have Virginia Tech to thank for it.”