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A question to ask an advocate of artificial turf is this: If it doesn't matter, if an unyielding surface is "not as dangerous" as its critics say, why won't coaches let their players practice on it?
Bill Walsh won't let his Super Bowl champion 49ers practice on turf. The Atlanta Falcons don't practice on it. University of Houston coach Bill Yeoman limits time to 45 minutes a week. Oilers trainer Jerry Meins is "glad we have grass to practice on." When Georgia goes on its turfed practice area "even for one day," says trainer Warren Morris, there is a residual effect on aches and pains that increases his work load: "I get old injury complaints. Old ankles, old hamstrings."
Howard Schnellenberger has ordered two new grass practice fields for the University of Louisville, although his team will play its home games on the turf of Cardinal Stadium. The Chicago Bears play on the AstroTurf of Soldier Field on Sunday, but practice during the week on the grass of Lake Forest College. West Virginia plays on plastic, but coach Don Nehlen says his new grass practice field is "the best thing that's happened since I've been here." Arizona coach Larry Smith remembers when he was at Tulane practicing and playing for two years on the turf in the Superdome: "The third year, we changed to regular grass for practice and cut our injuries by 60 percent."
All right, say the friends of phony grass, we concede that artificial turf is harder. With several inches of asphalt laid like a launch pad beneath the one-inch plastic, it has to be. It is the price you pay for better traction, rain or shine.
Yes, reply the lame and the halt, but what good is better traction when a ligament tears in the act of cutting, or a shoulder comes apart in the act of falling down? When the surface won't give, something else will. Several years ago the Rams' Roman Gabriel wound up with a concussion when his helmet hit the unyielding carpet. And the Colts' Bert Jones partially separated his shoulder when his pads "grabbed" the surface as he was tackled.
The "noncontact" injury has always been a frustrating fact of football and a persistent reminder of the fragility of the knee. But this kind of injury has taken on a new ugliness because of turf traction. An entire league could be formed with victims who were hurt severely without being touched by anything but the rug.
Here are the grim examples:
?The University of Arkansas recruits a star quarterback from Birmingham named Richard Burg in 1977. On his first day at practice as a freshman, Burg takes a snap and goes down the line, plants his foot in the AstroTurf to fake a pitch and collapses with two ligament tears and a torn cartilage. No one is within 10 feet of him. Burg never plays a down for the Razorbacks.
? Green Bay signs a "franchise" running back named Eddie Lee Ivery in 1979. In his first game as a Packer, at Soldier Field, Ivery breaks through the line on a draw play, cuts outside, plants his foot to turn upfield, and suddenly falls to the turf, fumbling the ball and clutching his knee in pain. He has to have surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The next year, Ivery plays "timid," he says, afraid that the same thing will happen again.