Heinz Field: Here's mud in your eye
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger brings down former teammate Joey Porter, now Dolphins' linebacker, after he intercepted a pass in the first quarter of last night's water-logged game at Heinz Field. (vs. Dolphins 11/26/07)
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The Steelers, looking to make a good impression on national television last night, rolled out a large green welcome mat of new turf.
And then the rain came.
Flashes of lightning and a steady downpour that began in the early evening delayed the start of the football game and turned the team's dream of a lush lawn into a m ushy mess.
Numbered yard lines were obliterated, players slogged and slid in watery sprays, and punted balls resembled pelicans splashing down. The goal lines might have been visible, but neither team got close enough in the scoreless first half to see them.
Televised close-ups showed a marshy surface that looked more like your aunt's soggy green-bean casserole than a rugged football field.
"It's a shame," one person in the Steelers organization said.
For four years, Heinz Field combatants had dueled on a DDGrassMaster surface that included mostly Kentucky bluegrass tied down with synthetic fibers. Recently, however, that turf took a brutal beating, especially after seven football games in 11 days, including four high school championships on Friday and a University of Pittsburgh game Saturday. The middle stretch of the playing surface was a brown, grassless pit that became muddy and slick in rain.
Hoping to spruce things up for last night's nationally televised game against the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers' management decided to put new sod over the old turf.
Grounds crews at Heinz Field worked for more than 24 hours over the weekend to roll out 21/2 acres of fresh, green sod brought in from New Jersey. Forklift operators lowered giant rolls onto the field, then backed up to unroll the strips of grass that were 4 feet wide, 25 feet long and weighed 1,900 pounds each.
The sod looked great -- until it rained. The tarp that had been spread atop the turf leaked at five seams and the sod, stacked atop the old surface, did not have much drainage.
In the hours before kickoff, ground crews feverishly tried to clear rainwater off the new sod, but the water kept winning. Armed with rakes, workers peeled up sections of sod and started dumping Diamond-Dry, the moisture-soaking mixture that grounds crews use on baseball infields and pitching mounds.
Watching the process was an NFL employee who had been sent to Heinz Field to inspect the turf before the game and make sure the installation was done properly.
Teams wanting to change their playing surface in the middle of the season must get approval from the league office. The New England Patriots did not do that last season, when they installed Field Turf late in the season, but the league office did nothing to stop them.
Just after 8 p.m., officials cleared Heinz Field when lightning flashed. As the players left the field, all of the white lines were obliterated -- the yard markers, the goal lines, end lines and sidelines. Workers started re-chalking those at 8:15 p.m.
The game began just before 9 p.m.
The new sod was purchased from Tuckahoe Turf Farm, based in New Jersey with a facility in Pennsylvania. Representatives of the company said the turf would be fine for the game. The only cause for concern would be rain.
James Betts, a managing partner with the seasonal, family-run business in Hammonton, N.J., said Tuckahoe Turf Farm owns 700 acres of former fruit and vegetable farmland that provides turf for athletic fields throughout the Northeast and as far away as Kansas City. Working with experts from Rutgers and Penn State universities, the company produces sod with a sandy loam soil that is supposed to drain well.
"Athletic fields have always helped us. That's our specialty," Mr. Betts said. "Our main goal is to put natural grass fields everywhere."
The company also has sodded baseball fields in Washington, Philadelphia and Boston. Tuckahoe used to provide turf for residential development in New Jersey, Mr. Betts said, "but that market has died out."
"It takes a lot of expertise, but we've been doing it for three generations," he said.
The company last week repaired the Philadelphia Eagles' field and this week is re-sodding fields for the Cleveland Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs.
In a 2006 survey conducted by the NFL Players Association, Heinz Field's field was voted the second-worst grass playing surface in the league. Voted "worst" was New England's Gillette Stadium. Since that survey, the Patriots have torn out the grass and installed an artificial surface known as FieldTurf.
The Steelers are investigating artificial surfaces, and they might install one at Heinz Field before the start of the 2008 season. They have been particularly interested in the new surface West Virginia University has this year. WVU installed a new generation of FieldTurf this summer called Duraspine at the cost of $901,152. The Steelers sent some of their people to WVU to take a look at the turf.
The Steelers have practiced on a different version of FieldTurf at their indoor facility since 2000, as has Pitt. The Panthers added an artificial turf called Sportexe on one of their outdoor practice fields next to the Steelers this year.
Pitt officials also have been urging the Steelers to install an artificial turf.
First Published November 27, 2007 12:00 am