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GOODBY TO THREE YARDS AND A CLOUD OF DUST
William Johnson
January 27, 1969
Dust will be history—mud, too—in the brave new era of synthetic football fields. The day when a player wipes his feet before running onto the gridiron is coming faster than you think
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January 27, 1969

Goodby To Three Yards And A Cloud Of Dust

Dust will be history—mud, too—in the brave new era of synthetic football fields. The day when a player wipes his feet before running onto the gridiron is coming faster than you think

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Perhaps it was inevitable in this, the Synthetic Century. Perhaps we should have been prepared for it in an age when people quite readily embrace plastic wedding bouquets and electric campfires and spray-on suntans. Perhaps the realization should have struck long ago that the grassless gridiron, lush as a rug and flawless as a hotel lobby, is indeed the football field of our time. Yet it is still a shock to face it in stark reality and to hear the words spoken in all their harshness by football's men of honor. Such as Duffy Daugherty of Michigan State: "By 1973 nearly every major college will have artificial turf. They'll have to in order to survive." Or such as Bear Bryant of Alabama: "We have synthetic turf on our practice field. We'll have it in our stadium next season. And I don't see how others can avoid going to it." Or such as Oklahoma-coach-turned- White House-helper Bud Wilkinson: "Artificial fields are the fields of the future." Or even such as Mr. Commissioner himself, Pete Rozelle, who says: "In five to 10 years any problems about playing championship games in cold-weather towns will be resolved—we'll have artificial turf on all of our fields by then."

Yes, it is true. The synthetic surface has just begun a period of proliferation in big-league football. The defoliation of the gridiron is upon us, and things will never again be quite the same. No longer will there be grotesque wet afternoons when the game is performed in mud-clogged slow motion on an expanse of slime, for there will no longer be mud. Never again will the name of that grand old school of offense—Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust—return to popular usage, for there will never again be dust. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow, neither moles nor holes nor locusts need ever again seriously affect the playing surface of the game. Indeed, to a major extent, the natural conditions governing football will have passed from the hand of God into the rubber glove of the chemist.

Of course, so far synthetic seeds have been sown over rather meager acreage—there are no more than a dozen fields here and there around the country. But the major propagators of ersatz turf are two typically hardheaded American business behemoths—the Monsanto Chemical Corp., which sells Astro Turf, and Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., which is pushing Tartan Turf. And as fans of capitalism everywhere know, there is no better evidence that synthetic surfaces have come to stay than the fact that two profit-minded, no-nonsense, stockholder-beholden corporations have seen fit to invest several million dollars and some extremely high-octane salesmanship into marketing green gridiron acres of plastic bristles or furry nylon fuzz. If there weren't a rich market potential, neither Monsanto nor 3M would be so committed, and as Bert Cross, the chairman of the board of 3M, says, "I'm very bullish about it. I'd say the sky's the limit on artificial turf." (We-e-e-ll, even though 3M has successfully covered both horse tracks and running tracks, including those at the 1968 Olympics, with its Tartan surfaces, one would hope that the sky might somehow be kept clear of the stuff. Still, given all that good old American big business know-how, there is probably no guarantee of that, either.)

But lest one be utterly misled by Mr. Cross's optimism or by the profound enthusiasm of Duffy Daugherty and Bear Bryant and Pete Rozelle, let us make it clear that the synthetic football surface is not going to grace every patch of pasture on which the game is played. The price of the stuff is dear indeed, and for now it is beyond the range of all but the very rich and very powerful—universities or professional teams or cities with municipal stadiums. The surfacing alone—either Monsanto's removable blanket of green bristles or 3M's permanent carpet of padded nylon nap—costs in the neighborhood of $31.50 a square yard. When multiplied by the bowl-to-bowl acreage of a football stadium, that averages out to roughly $200,000 per gridiron.

As to which is the best product among the brand names now being touted, we'll leave the bickering to the peddlers from 3M, Monsanto or whichever smaller firms may be lurking along the synthetic sidelines. The fact is that, no matter who owns the vats and boilers that mix the recipes, there are several apparent advantages intrinsic to any well-made artificial turf. Such surfaces do not get chewed up, pitted, scuffed, scarred or worn through to a hard dirt base. No matter how many raggedy high school games or thundering band parades or American Legion conventions or Billy Graham mass revival meetings may stamp and tramp across the turf, it simply doesn't do immediate damage to the uniformity of the surface. Unlike frail and precious blades of real grass, customarily guarded from any usage except for the big game, artificial grass lends itself to everything—and lots of it. In Seattle, which has AstroTurf in its municipal stadium, 100 games were played on the field this year without a sign of wear. At the University of Wisconsin, which installed Tartan Turf last year, the team practiced in the stadium proper, the band practiced there, and the soccer, Rugby and freshman football squads all played on the sacred acreage. In the past, even a gentle springtime ROTC review made Wisconsin's ground-keepers wince over the damage done to their perennially puny growth of grass. Indeed, what with all the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides required to keep the field green, Wisconsin officials figure to save $20,000 a year in maintenance costs. (They can also salvage up to $10,000 on laundry since the deep dirt stains of mud and grass are no longer present.)

Perhaps the most significant general contribution offered by synthetic surfacing is the improved use of land—particularly in thickly populated and astronomically expensive sections of cities. For example, in Madison the land around the University of Wisconsin is valued at roughly $240,000 an acre. For years a five-acre section of it was earmarked for football practice fields. Now, with the advent of Tartan Turf in the stadium, the university is able to reoccupy nearly two acres (about $450,000 worth) of the practice areas because the team can work out on the stadium Tartan itself much of the time. Thus there is sound common sense to the synthetic sales pitch that a couple of hundred thousand spent for a fake field that can be used again and again is a better investment than an attempt to maintain real sod for a minimal number of terribly special occasions—especially in urban areas where recreational land is at a ridiculous premium.

So facsimile grass seems to be an intelligent financial investment, but what does it do to the game of football? Apparently nothing very bad. The ball bounces quite true, the surface is properly resilient, the traction is superb (although the surface requires special shoes, which means buying a "bank" of shoes for visiting teams). Generally those who have played on it have kind words for the stuff. Ole Miss Coach Johnny Vaught, whose team took a 31-0 drubbing on Tennessee's newly installed Tartan Turf, said, "It must be the fastest field in the world. I'd like to have one." Minnesota's Murray Warmath said after playing at Wisconsin last fall, "The fact you don't hear a lot of complaints proves everyone likes it." And even Green Bay's Vince Lombardi, a purist through and through ("football is supposed to be played on natural turf"), sees it as a surface that offers an oddly demanding measurement of a team's overall quality. "I think artificial turf tends to make a good athlete a little better and a poor athlete a little poorer—if you get my meaning—because the surface is even all over."

Of course, the stuff is not foolproof, nor does everyone who has played on it come up with instant and automatic endorsements. "You just can't cut as sharply as you can on real grass," says Wisconsin Fullback Mel Reddick. Mississippi's Tailback Steve Hindman says, "The traction was too good. You take off so much better that you find yourself pitching forward." And Billy Cannon, Oakland's vociferous tight end, said after playing in Houston's Astrodome; "Artificial turf is a joke. I can't understand why they'd build a beautiful stadium like that, then throw ma hard surface that has got to shorten the Oiler players' careers two and three years per man. It'd make a nice bowling alley. The only people who could possibly like it are polo players."

There were also complaints about skid burns and abrasions. There were protests about the problems of phony turf being slick when wet. There was some concern about the initial (if very brief) difficulty visiting teams have had in adjusting to falls on a surface that looks as hard and unyielding as a billiard table. And there were gripes about the intense heat the stuff absorbs from the sun.

For all the pros and cons about the synthetic gridiron, perhaps the single factor that everyone in football wants most to be assured about is how artificial turf affects the incidence of injuries. It has long been a wishful belief that the uniform surface and absence of cleat-catching grass will greatly reduce the crippling of knees and ankles. Early, although very incomplete, reports would seem fairly encouraging. Ivy Williamson, longtime athletic director at Wisconsin, says, "Without having precise figures to prove the point, we feel our Tartan Turf has done what it was supposed to do—cut down on knee and ankle injuries," Of course, 3M has had its product on the market for just one season, and it was installed only at Wisconsin and Tennessee at that. So there is scarcely enough statistical evidence to allow any compelling conclusions on Tartan Turf, Monsanto, which has had AstroTurf fields in use since 1964, has surveyed 185 schools on their incidence of knee and ankle injuries over the years. On the average, Monsanto found, teams playing on real sod suffered 9.6 such injuries each year, while teams playing on AstroTurf reported an average of 1.6. Monsanto officials also reported that the University of Houston, which plays its home games on the synthetic sod of the Astrodome, had 11 knee injuries during the 1966-67 season—every one of them during road games played on natural grass.

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