SI Vault
John Underwood
November 15, 1971
On AstroTurf, the wetter the slipperier. On Poly-Turf, the drier the slipperier. On Tartan Turf, don't throw cigarette butts. But the burning question is injuries
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November 15, 1971

New Slant On The Mod Sod

On AstroTurf, the wetter the slipperier. On Poly-Turf, the drier the slipperier. On Tartan Turf, don't throw cigarette butts. But the burning question is injuries

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To bring you up to date, you will recall that in previous installments man had been playing football on grass, but he tore the grass up, and when it rained there was mud, and the numbers on his jersey were covered with it, and so was the ball, and the bands played on. They also marched on the mud, making it muddier. And so man invented AstroTurf, Tartan Turf and Poly-Turf. And when it rained there was no mud. A giant squeegee, pulled by a tractor, parted the water from the AstroTurf in Lincoln, Neb., and the field was dry. In Miami they pulled the drainage plugs under the Poly-Turf and—whoosh!—the field was dry. The numbers could be seen. So could the civic officials and stadium owners rushing to their friendly neighborhood synthetic turf dealer.

Ersatz grass was installed across the width and breadth of this great country of ours until 11 of the 26 fields where pro football teams play were carpeted. Colleges eagerly sought the mod sod and before long 72 playing fields were as phony as brick wallpaper. In Pittsburgh they found they could cram in four softball games, four soccer games or three touch football games at the same time, and the groundkeeper said he loved not having to spread manure. The field was in use 12 hours a day and it was be-you-ti-ful.

But. On a clear day in Candlestick Park, 49er fans have difficulty sorting out man, ball and AstroTurf because of the glare and halation from the blades of nylon grass. In Tennessee the carpet (Tartan Turf) turned black. Minnesota Mining, the manufacturer, sent around a man with some "solution" but eventually had to replace the surface. In Miami the Orange Bowl field (Poly-Turf) turned blue.

The blades of Poly-Turf (from polypropylene, as opposed to the nylon base of Tartan Turf and AstroTurf) adopted an angle of repose roughly 15� from flat-out, and no amount of coaxing, combing and vacuuming was able to get its full attention. The seams began to split. There appeared to be ripples. When the sun beat down the surface became glassy, and running with the grain was slippery business on a hot, dry Sunday afternoon. Don Shula, the Dolphin coach, looked at films of his team's games with the Jets and Patriots and added up 114 pratfalls. American Biltrite's representative studied the situation and blamed the whole thing on air pollution. The city of Miami took a closer look at its five-year guarantee.

The players started screaming. Softly at first. "It doesn't feel right," said a Detroit Lion. "Grass smells better," said a Philadelphia Eagle. Coaches could be heard moaning. Shug Jordan of Auburn said it was like playing on a Brillo pad at Georgia Tech.

Players and coaches together complained—louder now—of the heat. Temperatures were 30� higher on synthetic surfaces. A New York Jet said he was "well done, cooked from the bottom up" after the game in Miami where the Poly-Turf registered over 120� at 2 p.m. In San Francisco Kermit Alexander of the Rams wrapped his feet in tinfoil "to play in the oven."

Defensive Tackle Dave Long of the New Orleans Saints led a concert of complaints about the surface in the Astrodome, Monsanto's 'original' installation and showcase. He said it was as hard as linoleum and players tripped over the lumps. Some of the lumps were the zippers Judge Roy Hofheinz ordered to make the field portable. Long said the Astrodome AstroTurf was the worst he'd seen. There were other candidates. Gale Sayers blamed the AstroTurf at Soldier Field for his delayed comeback from off-season knee surgery. When he finally played three weeks ago, he twisted his ankle on the first series of downs. "This stuff," said Sayers bitterly, "will shorten careers."

Where once the manufacturers had sold buyers on the "safety factor," either by outright advertising or laying it on heavy in the sales pitch, they shut up. Independent studies indicated that injuries went up, not down, on artificial turf. Dr. Joseph S. Torg, a Philadelphia orthopedic surgeon and team physician for Temple, "strongly recommended" a moratorium on the installation of artificial turf. Dr. William Smith, Pitt's former team physician and orthopedic surgeon, spoke of a "50-to-60%" increase in injuries and blamed improper shoes. Dr. James Garrick of the University of Washington got national attention with his dire findings.

Everybody had a story to tell but Tommy Prothro, the Ram coach, had a helmet to show. It was one worn by Roman Gabriel in a game at Candlestick Park. The helmet had a smudge near the crown. The smudge was made up of abrasion scars, as if the helmet had been dragged on concrete. Game films indicated that Gabriel's head had whiplashed onto the AstroTurf and spoiled his good vibrations. Gabriel, who had a concussion, had to leave the game. " AstroTurf is like putting a throw rug over a driveway," said Prothro. In a college game at Wisconsin, played atop Tartan Turf, an LSU player took an especially hard fall. On the bus ride to the airport he was asked what he thought about the new playing surface. "I'm sorry," he replied blankly. "I don't remember a thing."

By now there was a cacophony of complaints. Dick Gordon of the Bears said you couldn't run normally on artificial turf because "you couldn't stop quick enough." A Los Angeles Ram compared it with "running dainty-footed downhill on a wet pavement." Others complained of too much traction. Archie Manning recalled that he had broken his left arm last year at Mississippi when he reached out to brake himself and his hand stuck to the AstroTurf.

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