The Houston Texans have a playing surface unlike any other in the NFL. And that is not necessarily a good thing.
The retractable-roof NRG stadium also has a sort-of-retractable-field. "Sort of" because it more resembles a pieced-together patchwork. The 97,000 square feet of natural grass playing surface gets removed from the stadium floor, taken outside in 8-foot by 8-foot “trays” to catch some needed rays, and receive water and fertilizer, and then gets brought back inside—via forklifts—for NFL games.
But having hundreds of trays of grass patched together for a field can create dips where the seams connect or line up firm patches of grass alongside soft patches. Complaints about just such occurrences have been coming in from NFL players and coaches for years. It got worse for the Texans on Sunday after star draft pick Jadeveon Clowney injured himself in Houston, telling teammate D.J. Swearinger, according to the NFL Network, that he stepped in a hole in the NRG Stadium turf, a hole where two trays should have created an even surface.
This wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. In 2010, Patriots coach Bill Belichick blamed the uneven grass for Wes Welker’s torn ACL and MCL. In a radio interview on WEEI he called the turf terrible, inconsistent and one of the worst fields he’s seen. In December 2011, Houston’s rookie punter Brett Hartmann caught his foot in a seam and fractured his fibula and tore his ACL, ending his career. He sued the Harris County Convention & Sports Corporation, owners of the stadium.
After more than a decade of the tray system, Kevin Cooper, spokesperson for the Texans, tells Edge the team hasn’t had any discussions about changing the turf. “We have been using this system for 13 years,” he says. “There is no other viable option.”
The Texans and NRG Stadium have three grass fields, all laid out on the other side of the Astrodome for prime sun, Cooper says.
Placing grass permanently inside NRG Stadium simply won’t work. Not only was the stadium designed architecturally to have a removable field, thus not capable of supporting natural grass, even if the roof was kept primarily open, the amount and type of events held in the venue, such as full-fledged rodeos, require the ability to remove the football playing surface.
At University of Phoenix Stadium, the only other venue with a retractable grass surface, the entire field rolls out inside a roughly two-acre tray planted 39 inches deep with grass, drainage and irrigation. The 16-rail track slides the entirety of the field out an opening on the stadium’s south side in one piece. NRG Stadium wasn’t designed like that, so picking up and moving turf presents the only real option.
About a year ago, NRG Stadium purchased a removable AstroTurf system, also moved in and out in sections, to increase the use of the stadium, allowing for multiple events and games in a short time frame, all without added wear to the Texans’ turf.
The AstroTurf system at NRG Stadium has 59 sections, each 15-feet wide. The AstroHopper system can roll up for storage. Installation takes about seven minutes per piece, which includes a nylon RootZone portion to hold the rubber infill and AstroTurf’s GameDay Grass 3D60 Xtreme field.
Of course, to get away from the inconsistency of three different fields and hundreds of trays of grass, Houston could move to a fully artificial surface for NFL games. Darren Gill, FieldTurf spokesperson, tells Edge “from what we’ve seen with the difficulty to maintain the grass surface at NRG, FieldTurf would make perfect sense for them.” But even a brand-new FieldTurf system, which would likely cost between $700,000 and $1 million, would need to remain removable to house the other events common for the venue, which requires a thinner composition of material, such as the AstroTurf system the stadium now owns. And anything removable will have seams.
The Houston Texans remain confident the removable natural-grass field they play on gives them the best in-game solution. Unfortunately, the Texans may be right.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.