There are many of my Steeler Nation brethren who believe it is long past the time for change. I’m not speaking of coordinators or head coaches or even general managers. I’m speaking of something so holy and so sacred that replacing it almost seems barbaric and sacrificial. I’m talking of course about the grass at Heinz Field.
If you go back to 1965 when the Houston Astrodome was built one thing became perfectly clear, grass was not going to grow so well indoors. Thus, the invention of ChemGrass, or “AstroTurf” as it became known was upon us. The vast majority of you Steelers’ and Pittsburgh Pirates’ fans will recall that Three Rivers Stadium also used AstroTurf as well.
When Heinz Field opened in 2001, there was much to be excited about and a large chunk of that excitement for me was the return of real, honest-to-goodness grass as the playing surface. As it turns out, maybe it wasn’t the best choice.
Besides hosting the Steelers’ homes games a minimum of 10 times a year and University of Pittsburgh Panthers’ college football games six or seven times a year, the field was also used by high school teams as well. That’s a lot of wear and tear on a natural grass surface. So bad has it been that the field was routinely replaced during mid-season and even went through additional repairs at other parts of different seasons too.
When the University of Michigan made the move to natural grass in 1991, it was a very welcome transition. However, it was constantly replaced in certain sections and eventually the field was again torn up six years later, re-crowned for better drainage and again had natural grass laid down. Grass just wasn’t functional in the below grade, bowl-shaped stadium that is the Big House. By 2003, FieldTurf, which is artificial was installed and continues to be there today.
While Heinz Field isn’t exactly a bowl, the turf seems to be struggling much as Michigan’s did and despite the best efforts of the crew at Heinz, perhaps it is time to finally make the move to the new FieldTurf.
I think most of us knew the exact moment when the big ketchup bottle’s turf hit rock bottom. It was a November night game and the Miami Dolphins were in town. The rain was hard and heavy at times and the wind blew off the river with a certain ferocity but the turf became the story of the game. The final tally was a 3-0 win for the home team as Jeff Reed kicked a 24-yard field goal in the final minute for the decisive points.
Although glad to get the win, the grass was the unfortunate star that evening. At one point, a punt actually stuck in the ground at the very point it hit the grass. Not a bounce, not a wiggle, not a roll, just splat! Players were constantly cleaning out cleats and removing mud and grass from their facemasks.
To be honest, I love those types of games and I always have because they just scream “football!” Mud and blood, sweat and tears and a really crappy field are what anyone who has ever played football can relate to. Sadly, those types of games are coming to an end as more and more teams are leaving the mud in the dust and opting instead for an artificial surface covered by shredded tires from your father’s old ford pick-up truck.
For me, it just isn’t the same to see a guy dive for a ball in wet conditions and see little pieces of rubber flying all over versus seeing water and dirt and grass come up everywhere. For those of you old enough, you can recall the days when stadiums had baseball and football teams sharing the grass in one stadium. Places like Oakland and San Diego and San Francisco were great places to watch games in the early NFL season because the dirt infields were still fresh and if it was raining guys would just be caked with mud and dirt. Now? Oh sure, splish-splash here and a splish-splash there but no one gets up with stains and no one empties their pants that are filled with dirt. Nope, just some shards of rubber these days.
I understand the need and the want for an artificial surface at Heinz Field and with the speed we have on offense right now it is certainly a good idea, but I’ll never be a fan of anything less than grass. As our society continues to be more and more “wussified,” playing football on freshly mown, frozen or muddy grass is going the way of the dinosaur and I for one don’t like it.
I’ll understand if the Rooney’s make the switch and frankly, it is probably necessary and right, but I will miss the days of watching grown men play in the mud and you should too.