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Steelers High-tech turf awaits Steelers, Panthers

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

When the city's two most prominent football teams move into Heinz Field this season, changes will be under foot.

Literally.

Cleats are back in vogue as the Steelers and Pitt Panthers follow the national trend away from artificial turf and back to grass.

The Steelers have not played regularly on grass since they moved into Three Rivers Stadium in 1970. They had four Super Bowl championship seasons on the fake turf.

Pitt began playing its home games on artificial turf when it was installed at Pitt Stadium in 1970. The Panthers' most recent national championship year, 1976, was played out on carpet.

The sod at Heinz was installed in May after years of thought, research and careful planning.

This is not your grandmother's country back yard.

According to Tim Keene, the Steelers' playing surfaces coordinator, the field is a blanket of five types of athletic bluegrass on top of 10 inches of sand, on top of rows of fluid-filled tubing, on top of gravel.

"It's built just like a golf green," Keene said.

Three weekends this year, Pitt and the Steelers play on back-to-back days. Keene said turnover should not be a problem.

He and his staff -- with an assist from Heinz Field workers -- will repaint all the lines and markings on the field. They will paint the college and pro yard numerals and hash marks in green or white, depending on which is needed. They will paint over the south end zone, then fill in "STEELERS" or "PANTHERS."

The north end zone will always say "PITTSBURGH," and there will not be a logo at midfield.

"The only thing that could slow us down is if it's pouring rain, and then we would have to build a tent over the south end zone to paint it," Keene said, "but we would still have plenty of time to get the field ready by the next day."

If it rains hard during a game, the field is bound to get torn up, Keene said, but he has done all he can to keep the damage to a minimum and make it as easy as possible to repair.

One important issue -- the one that induced so many northern stadiums to switch to artificial surfaces years ago -- is the mix of weather and climate.

Technological advances are on Keene's side. He can't stop the rain or snow, but he can forestall winter to some degree.

Forty miles of flexible tubing between the sand and gravel layers will carry a mix of 75 percent hot water, 25 percent antifreeze. As the weather turns cooler, the liquid in the tubing is supposed to keep the grass surface at about 62 degrees.

"When the climate gets cold, the bluegrass hibernates just like a bear and says, 'Hey, time for winter. I'd better start storing stuff,'" Keene said. "So instead of repairing itself and growing, it starts storing sugars for the winter.

"By keeping the temperature up, you're kind of fooling the grass into thinking that we're really not going to sleep right now, so it keeps growing."

The heating system also is designed to melt snow, up to half an inch per hour. More than that, and the field will have to be plowed.

The field will be seeded every week to keep a constant sprouting of new shoots, and there will be a meticulous maintenance schedule of watering, fertilizing and mowing.

Keene also helped design and now maintains the four grass fields at the teams' South Side practice facility. Except for the heating system, those fields are nearly identical to the surface at Heinz Field, and because they have been in use for about two years, they gave Keene a good idea of what would work on the North Shore.

"We did some experimenting over here that seemed to work out extremely well," Keene said at his office inside the maintenance building on the South Side.

Like the practice fields, Heinz will have a low crown in the shape of a turtle's back -- that is, the middle of the field will be about 8 inches higher than the sidelines between the 15-yard lines. The crest of the crown will split in two around each 15, running toward the corners of the end zones.

Most NFL fields are crowned at 10 to 16 inches, Keene said, but he's gotten a positive response from Steelers players on the 8-inch height.

The grass will be lower than on most NFL fields, too, he said. Heinz Field will sport about an inch of grass; most are closer to 2 inches. Keene said the extra mowing will promote a good, spreading growth -- rather than top growth -- in the grass, and the shorter height will make the field faster for the players.

At the South Side, Keene discovered that altering the drainage capacity helps keep the fields in top condition.

Most newer grass NFL and major-league baseball fields are built to handle more than 10 inches of rain an hour. PNC Park's rate is about 14.

At the South Side, Keene designed the fields to absorb just 6 inches an hour. That worked well. So at Heinz, it's only 3 inches an hour.

"There's nobody else in the NFL that has a rate that low," Keene said. "By slowing it down, you add more organic matter to the sand, which makes rooting better."

That, he hopes, will cut down on the number and size of divots and will help keep the field in good shape on busy weekends, when both Pitt and the Steelers play or if there are high school playoff games or a concert.

When there are concerts -- such as the 'N Sync performance that opened Heinz Field Aug. 18 -- extra care will be taken to protect the grass.

First, the grass will be treated with chemicals a few weeks beforehand to induce a temporary dormancy. Then, at the last possible moment, a 3-1/2-inch plastic membrane will be laid over the field, but will be suspended an inch above the grass, with a fan to circulate air through the blades.

Keene said he is eager, but not nervous, about the first season on the grass at Heinz Field.

His confidence has gotten a boost because he has not had to re-sod the fields on the South Side since they were installed, whereas as far as he can tell, every other pro and major college team with a comparable amount of grass surface has to re-sod once or even twice a year.

"We've gone through two seasons of practice with the Steelers and one-plus with Pitt, with summer camps and everything," Keene said. "That, by itself, says we've done something right."

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