Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Bengals will keep on the grass

By Dan Klepal dklepal@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The grass may be greener in other football stadiums, but changes made to the soil under the grass at Paul Brown Stadium have allowed the turf to hold up just fine, stadium managers say.

        In March, Hamilton County officials studied the turf, which in its first two seasons was reduced to a sandy wasteland by season's end. They prescribed adding more soil and less sand to the subsurface this year. They also got rid of the artificial turf stabilizer, which real grass grows through.

        The middle section of the field has been replaced with turf of a higher soil content at a cost of $25,000. The grounds crew expects one more re-sodding this year and is growing a “sod farm” so they can replace the grass more cheaply next year.

        “We're still in the infant stage of operating this facility,” said Joe Feldkamp, assistant stadium director. “What we're finding is that the new area we re-sodded is playing better than the old areas.”

        Hamilton County commissioners decided to stick with the grass, even though Commissioner Todd Portune would like to change to one of the new artificial surfaces on the market, which reportedly plays and feels more like real grass. Those surfaces have been used in Nippert Stadium at the University of Cincinnati, at the University of Washington and in Detroit's Ford Field.

        Bengals president Mike Brown said he's willing to stick with the turf for at least another year. He said the team will re-evaluate how the turf performed during the off-season. The real test will come in November and December, he said.

        “When these fields with a sand base tear up, you're left with nothing but a beach,” Mr. Brown said. “We've gone through a lot of growing pains with that. We're trying to see what others are doing and if we can't make it go well with grass, we may have to go back to some form of artificial surface. But, quite honestly, this field has been safer than the fields we played on with Astroturf.”

        The NFL and UC assistant football coach Brian McCann also seem satisfied with the field. UC plays its home games on artificial turf called FieldTurf, which is similar to that which Mr. Portune would like installed at Paul Brown Stadium. UC played a game against Ohio State in the stadium Sept. 28.

        “I don't think the (stadium) field affected our game one way or the other,” Mr. McCann said. “At our stadium, we went with FieldTurf three years ago, and we've had no complaints from anybody.”

        That's not the case at Paul Brown Stadium, where Jacksonville filed a protest in 2000, and a San Diego player complained to the media that he suffered an injury because of the playing field. Two weeks ago after a game in Pittsburgh, Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson said Pittsburgh had the worst playing field in the league.

        “I can say that because I've played in Cincinnati,” Mr. Dawson said, referring to the Browns game in Paul Brown Stadium last year.

        Head groundskeeper Doug Bradley said the new artificial surfaces appear to be a good choice, but they haven't been tested enough to know for sure. Does the rubber beneath the surface harden after a few years of use? Can it withstand the weight of cranes, like those used to assemble the stage for the Billy Graham mission this summer?

        Mr. Bradley said the stabilized turf used in Paul Brown Stadium was the hot new product when managers picked it as the stadium was under construction.

        “The stabilized turf hasn't done what we thought it would,” Mr. Bradley said. “I don't think it's wise to switch to something without data.”

        NFL officials made their annual inspection of the stadium's field Sept. 29, and reported no problem with the field at all. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league makes routine inspections of every stadium's playing field at least once a year, then looks at them if there is a complaint.

        “Our inspector was at the (Tampa Bay) game, and the field was in good shape; no problem with the field at all,” Mr. Aiello said.

        Bengals quarterback Gus Frerotte said an artificial surface would be “the simple solution” in Cincinnati. “It's good because you can have a lot of events on it,” Mr. Frerotte said. “Grass is fine if you only play eight games a year on it. But the grass held up pretty good in the last game (against Tampa Bay).”

        Bengals receiver Michael Westbrook said he prefers grass, if it holds together.

        “I'm a grass guy, 'cause it adds months and years to a career,” Mr. Westbrook said. “But the grass here is pretty bad. It just never holds. I've never fallen on it, but there is a lot of slipping.”

        Still, Mr. Feldkamp said the field should be given a chance to work. And it apparently will, at least for the rest of the year. Commissioners asked for an end-of-the-year report on the turf.

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