Packers tackle a new field goal


Nov 23, 2005
Reaction score
Fontana, CA
[email protected]
Posted: Feb. 16, 2007

It's probably the most famous acre of grass in the state, and it just got cut.

A new playing surface and heating and drainage systems, shown under construction Thursday at Lambeau Field, will feature natural grass reinforced with synthetic green yarn-like fibers. The work began after the last game of the season

Strands of green fibers will be anchored about 7 inches below the field in a bed of sand; the tips will poke out about an inch.
More photos: Galley and slideshow

Picture the fanciest golf courses in the country, and how beautiful they are. Well, the level of expectation on (NFL) fields is pretty much the same.

In the Green Bay Packers' decades-old quest to find that ever-elusive greener patch of turf, this winter, the organization has shaved away the natural playing surface at Lambeau Field and excavated to a depth of about 3 feet.

The "tundra" will be reworked for better drainage, rewired for a better in-ground heating system and replanted with a mix of real and synthetic blades of grass.

"It's a climate issue, and an issue of drainage," says team president John Jones. "By the time you're reaching November and going into December - and those are critical home games for our team - you want to make sure the (playing) surface isn't a factor in Coach McCarthy's game preparations, or a factor in a game."

The organization seems sensitive to perceptions that it is in danger of fiddling with the field's carefully cultivated throw-back image captured so aptly in the stadium logo, the one with a square-jawed player sporting an old-style leather helmet.

"A natural surface is important to us. What we think we have in this solution is a very dependable grass field that gets a little reinforcement," Jones says. "If you ask me or anybody in the Packers (organization) what surface we play on, we'd all say grass."

Indeed, fans - and even players - likely will have difficulty detecting anything is different when the team takes the field for the first time next season. The green they see will be real grass. The green they won't see is millions of plastic fibers, not unlike strands from a cheerleader's pompom, anchored about 7 inches below the field in a bed of sand; the tips will poke out about an inch above the ground, just below the top of the natural grass.

Unlike the natural grass, those fibers won't die or get torn up as the season wears on. They're designed to anchor the soil so that players can still get their footing in most conditions.

The system now being installed uses more than 30 snaking miles of plastic pipe coursing with anti-freeze, sandwiched between a 4-inch bed of gravel and a 12-inch layer of sand, which all sits just beneath the grass. It is built to drain much better than the old clay-based turf.

Maintaining a decent all-natural grass surface deep into the cold weather months has proved almost impossible. Even though the center strip of the field has been regularly resodded in late season, by the end of the year it has often been reduced to just a strip of dirt that gets a coat of green paint before kickoff.

The Packers tried a somewhat similar hybrid system of real and fake grass in the late '90s that involved natural grass growing among artificial fibers on a bed of synthetic mesh. It was removed after a couple of seasons when players complained they could not get decent footing.

This new mesh-free system, already in use in NFL stadiums in Denver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, allows cleats to chew into a bed of stable, sandy soil even when the grass fades in late season.

The Packers installed the same surface on one of their practice fields across from the stadium a couple of years ago, the one fans identify as the Packers' grass practice field, and the one team officials say Packers players rave about.

Players want a predictable, consistent playing surface. Fans, meanwhile, might like to romanticize the concept of a muddy gridiron, but that can change the second their quarterback can't get a grip on the ball or their running back can't stay on his feet.

And then there is the lush look viewers have come to expect when they turn on the television.

"Picture the fanciest golf courses in the country, and how beautiful they are," says Allen Johnson, the team's fields manager. "Well, the level of expectation on (NFL) fields is pretty much the same."

Anybody who thinks Vince Lombardi is cackling cynically somewhere should talk to team historian Lee Remmel, who points out Lombardi had his own history of tinkering with field technology. Remmel says Lombardi ordered the stadium's first playing-field heating system.

"I think it cost about $80,000 at the time, which was a substantial amount of money," Remmel says.

It also failed in its first season at the worst possible moment, just before the 1967 NFL Championship.

That led to a playing surface almost as slippery as ice.

And that, of course, led to one of the most fantastic finishes in NFL history.