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Sports

A long way from the Astrodome: Turf's become safer, more prevalent

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It all started in 1965 when the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I., installed an artificial surface called “ChemGrass” in its athletic stadium.

The debate — natural grass or artificial turf? — still rages today.

ChemGrass, which became known as “AstroTurf” after the Houston Astrodome became the first major professional sports facility to install artificial turf in 1966, was far different then. In those days, AstroTurf was, simply, a carpet of plastic grass rolled out on top of a thin rubber pad and concrete base. It was not very forgiving and as more facilities installed AstroTurf, the injuries mounted.

Things have changed significantly. When North Ridgeville plays Amherst in its first game at its new stadium Sept. 2, the turf below the players’ feet will be something called FieldTurf, a much safer and more forgiving surface than the original AstroTurf.

North Ridgeville is the fourth Lorain County school to make the switch from natural grass to artificial turf, joining Avon, Avon Lake and Midview.

FieldTurf is the fourth generation of artificial turf. It’s a complex system of synthetic grass and rubber “infill” pellets placed on a sandy base. It all rests on a technical drainage system.

Safety in No. 6

The most important feature of the Rangers’ new $800,000 field is the most obscure. Those little rubber pellets that act as a kind of artificial “dirt” for the playing surface are among the most-studied and critical component of any FieldTurf surface.

The concept is simply this: the higher the “infill weight,” the fewer injuries. Dr. Michael C. Meyers, the director of the Human Performance Research Laboratory at West Texas A&M University, has spent the better part of the last decade studying artificial turf and how it relates to injuries in high school and college athletics.

Meyers recently presented a paper at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s annual conference in Colorado Springs with his findings from a five-year study of the infill systems in FieldTurf playing surfaces. His findings will be welcome news for North Ridgeville players, coaches, administrators and fans.

Infill weight is the key, and the field installed at North Ridgeville, with an infill weight of six pounds per square foot, is the “magic number” Meyers’ study found in terms of safety.

“Some turf systems are very poor, that natural grass might rival,” Meyers said. “That’s, in many cases, where the school pays a cheap price for their project … it really is penny-wise and pound foolish.

“The study proved you should never go below six pounds for your infill weight. Ever. The majority of the industry is using three to five. The money is spent in the infill and these companies try to undercut each other and cut back on the infill weight. They are setting themselves up for the potential for major injuries that could be avoided.”

Rangers athletic director Matt Yunker said the injury studies, coupled with input from area schools that have installed artificial turf, helped determine what would be installed in Ranger Stadium.

“The athletic directors in the Southwestern Conference, if there is a new project going on, have a very open line of communication with each other,” Yunker said. “I know I can reach out and ask questions of people that have gone through this process, asking what they would have done different or what they did that really worked.

“We’ve had a lot of visits and talks with those folks and have taken what we learned from them and tried to mold it into something that is unique to us and our needs here at North Ridgeville.

“We also asked the architects of the field a lot of questions that went much deeper than just the life expectancy of the field. We’ve seen a lot of those studies regarding safety and there was a study on our actual field that showed us positive tangible results.”

Not just for football

While football is the marquee sport at area high schools, the North Ridgeville soccer programs will be playing on the new FieldTurf as well. Meyers said the surface is ideal for heavy usage.

“You have multiple sports, with multiple teams, using the fields now,” he said. “You have the freshman, the JV, the varsity for the different sports. The playing surface has to perform and there is no way natural grass can compete against multipurpose fields. It is consistent day after day.

“Also from the injury standpoint, the studies comparing FieldTurf to natural grass across several seasons show how FieldTurf always performs in a superior fashion. In both my three-year and five-year studies, FieldTurf significantly outdistanced natural grass.”

While the $800,000 cost, which was raised through a bond issue the North Ridgeville voters approved, might seem steep, Yunker said compared to natural grass the FieldTurf makes financial sense.

“There were a lot of little things that added up,” he said. “I know some of these things over the long term won’t reach the price tag for the new field, but overall this was a great decision when you look at costs.

“There was the mowing, the seeding, the fertilizing, the lining of the field … which was a weekly thing and sometimes which we had to do multiple times during the week … we were spending thousands and thousands of dollars every year on field paint.

“That’s not looking at the man hours to do that stuff, that’s just looking at the materials and equipment. We also have a rental fee structure for outside groups that want to use the field, and all that money is going to go into the turf replacement fund.

“Some of them are hidden, but we are seeing the cost savings. There might be that initial shock at the price tag, but when you dive into the advantages to the district in terms of time and money the savings are big.”

Hoping to host

North Ridgeville also has an eye on potentially hosting neutral-site playoff games in the future.

“Once the bond issue passed and we knew this was going to happen, one of the first things we did was go down and meet with the OHSAA,” Yunker said. “We wanted to get their suggestions and ask them what they’re looking for when they choose neutral sites for regional playoff games — not just for football but for all sports.

“While the stadium was designed for our community and school’s needs, we certainly kept in mind what we needed to do if the opportunity came up to host a regional football or soccer game or a regional track meet.

“We will certainly be available if the opportunity arises to host anything postseason-wise.”

The boys soccer team was scheduled to open the field Wednesday, while the girls soccer team opens its home season Saturday.

“It goes beyond just the football team,” Yunker said. “The soccer teams are excited, the track team is excited. … We have people from the community that have stopped by to watch practice because they wanted to check out the new facility. … It’s great for other teams to be awestruck with what we have as opposed to in the past when we’ve been awestruck with what other schools have.”

Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or macsportstalk@gmail.com.



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