Most boys enjoy playing in the dirt, but when Ryan Welker was little he would rather have cut lawns — even if it was just pretend.
Welker's passion for blades of grass while growing up has him on a sports career path — not as a professional athlete, but, instead, care-taking all things turf.
"I have a picture of me at 2 or 3 years old driving a lawnmower around for fun at my grandparents' house, probably pretending to myself that I was cutting the grass even though I had no idea what that even meant at the time," said Ryan, a son of Rob and Lisa Welker of Cambridge Springs.
The 2017 graduate of Cambridge Springs High School is majoring in turfgrass science at Penn State University.
"I’ve always enjoyed playing golf and just spending time outside, so going places like a Major League Baseball game and seeing how good the field looked made me want to start doing the same thing at home," Welker said.
"From there, my passion exploded with every blade of grass I cut as I learned more and more about the science behind it," he said. "I knew that I wanted to go to Penn State because their turf program is world-renowned and by far the best of them all. "
Welker has cultivated his love of turf to bloom into multiple jobs or internships in professional turf management for golf courses and football fields, including stints with Penn State and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He's worked and done internships at the Kahkwa Club golf course in Erie. That led to him becoming part of the grounds crew at Penn State University's Beaver Stadium in the fall of 2019. His interest, college major and life experiences in turf parlayed into an internship with the Steelers in June 2020 and he remains part of the team's ground crew while still in college.
"One of the biggest things I wanted to do was get a true, first-hand experience of all sides of the industry before graduating college so that I could have the best idea of where I want to end up after finishing school," he said.
About five years ago, Welker found out he could earn a college degree in turfgrass science — it was around the time he began working at the Kahkwa Club. A friend of Welker's was an assistant grounds superintendent in training at the golf course and helped him get hired for the summer.
"I started there in 2016, which was the same year they were hosting the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship, so before I was even a senior in high school I had already experienced working a USGA event my first year of working on a golf course," Welker said.
After high school, Welker kept working at the golf course during summers and on weekends.
"I kept working there because the superintendent, Justin Sudo, and his assistants never failed to get me experience with every opportunity possible," Welker said. "I’ve been there for five years now — two in high school and then the other three as an intern during college each of the summers between each school year."
He even worked at the golf course on weekends he was home from college.
Welker's stay at the Kahkwa Club lasted until he received the OK to start his internship with the Steelers in June 2020.
Starting his college career at Penn State Behrend in the fall of 2017, Welker planned to become part of the Beaver Stadium grounds crew at Penn State's main campus at University Park. Welker would transfer to the main campus in the fall of 2019 for courses in his major.
"I reached out to the guys at Beaver Stadium and expressed my interest in working for them before even getting on campus, knowing it would increase my chances of getting an internship with the Steelers," he said. "Shortly after, they set up an interview with me. I was lucky enough to experience the fall (2019) semester and football season with them before classes started going online in the spring."
Beaver Stadium was his first experience with athletic fields, but not his last.
"One of the coolest parts was getting to be on the sidelines for Penn State football games," he said of his time at Beaver Stadium. "But just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I found myself on the field for both Pitt and Steeler games."
Welker began to work an internship at the Steelers' Heinz Field while in high school.
"During my senior year of high school I contacted Dr. Andrew McNitt, who is the turfgrass science program coordinator and also the director for the Center for Sports Surface Research at PSU," Welker said. "He also works for the NFL as well, so he helped me set up a day that I could go visit with the guys in Pittsburgh."
In the years that followed, Welker kept in contact with Chris Ecton, sports turf operations manager for the Steelers, and Bill Ellinger, a Steelers grounds crew member.
"This year ended up working out the best for me to do the internship with them," Welker said. "I think the majority of it is because of the resumé I built for myself leading up to it, which blessed me with the internship of a lifetime. To be there for both Steeler and Pitt games in an empty stadium when fans weren't allowed in the stands was really something unimaginable in a place that normally holds around 70,000 people."
Even though his internship has ended, he's still working with the Steelers' grounds crew.
"This time of year there is still a little mowing and fertilizing to do because the field actually is heated year round so the grass still is growing a little," he said.
Welker's internship plan recently earned him the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Alumni Society Internship Award. The award encourages students to participate in a credit or noncredit educational internship program that relates to their field of study.
Winners are chosen on the basis of an internship plan, a final report on the internship, an employer evaluation and a letter of recommendation from their academic adviser. Welker received a $1,000 stipend along with the honor of being selected.
Welker said his goal upon graduation from Penn State this spring is to be "a sports turf manager for an NFL team or something very similar to that."
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.