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Artificial Turf: Change From the Ground Up

A godsend to the game’s future when it arrived in the ’60s, the concrete-like plastic surfaces eventually became a nightmare for players and a destroyer of careers. The new stuff’s more forgiving, but purists still prefer the real thing

Editor’s note: This is the second in The MMQB’s 10-part series NFL 95: A History of Pro Football in 95 Objects, commemorating the 95th season of the NFL in 2014. Each Wednesday through the start of training camp in July, The MMQB will unveil one long-form piece on an artifact of particular significance to the history of the NFL, accompanied by other objects that trace the rise of professional football in America, from the NFL’s founding in a Hupmobile dealership in Canton in 1920 to its place today at the forefront of American sports and popular culture.

It was the summer of 1969 when they sent Dan Dierdorf out to start digging a grave for his hips, his knees and his spine. Nobody understood this at the time, least of all Dierdorf. He was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Michigan, a big kid from Canton, Ohio, 6-foot-3 and more than 270 pounds, and he just wanted to play football. In the previous autumn he had earned a starting position on the offensive line in the final season before Bo Schembechler took over the Wolverines from Bump Elliott, and Dierdorf wouldn’t surrender that spot for three years and 25 victories. Then he would play 13 more seasons in the NFL, all for the St. Louis Cardinals, and play so well that he would be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one of only 19 offensive tackles so honored. But this was before all of that.

In that summer of ’69, Dierdorf was given a job by the Michigan Athletic Department. It was authentic work—day labor for real money. Dierdorf and some other members of the football team were sent to the floor of Michigan Stadium as members of a work crew assigned to tear up the natural grass field. They ripped up sod in giant panels, loaded it onto trucks and delivered it to various grass-needy locales around Ann Arbor. When they came back to the stadium, another job awaited: Unrolling giant spools of pale green carpet to replace the grass. The new surface was called Tartan Turf, manufactured by 3M as a competitor to Monsanto’s Astroturf, which had come into use two years earlier, for use on the baseball field in the Astrodome. The Big House was among the first major football stadiums to replace natural grass with artificial turf, though the practice would become epidemic over the next several years.

After helping install the new turf at the Big House, Dierdorf played three seasons on it, and another 13 on the hard surface at Busch Stadium as a Cardinal. (Bentley Historical Library :: Herbert Weitman/WireImage.com)

After helping install the new turf at the Big House, Dierdorf played three seasons on it, and another 13 on the hard surface at Busch Stadium as a Cardinal. (Bentley Historical Library :: Herbert Weitman/WireImage.com)

By September, the Wolverines were playing games, and occasionally practicing on the Tartan Turf. And initially, Dierdorf didn’t entirely dislike it. “It tore up your skin if you fell on it,” says Dierdorf. “But as an offensive lineman, you were guaranteed to get good traction on every play. On pass plays, you really liked the fact that you could drop back and plant, and your foot was never going to slip. From that point of view, you kind of liked it. It was sticky and reliable. I never thought for a minute about what it might be doing to my body.” Dierdorf stops and returns to the more ominous truth of his present-day life: “Who knew?”

Who knew that Dierdorf, 64, would be telling this old college story four and a half decades later, in March of this year, eight weeks after he was hung upside down for 11 hours of surgery to rebuild his spinal column, aided by the insertion of three metal rods and 32 screws. Both of his knees and both of his hips had been replaced, as of six years earlier, yet his legs had withered from a tackle’s tree trunks to a distance runner’s pipe stems because of nerve damage in his spine. The back surgery had left Dierdorf 2 ½ inches taller, nearly restored to his full height after years of stooping further toward the ground, yet he would need months of physical therapy to teach himself to walk again. In January, Dierdorf retired after 31 years of broadcasting NFL games on television because his body could no longer withstand weekly air travel (he has since taken a job broadcasting Michigan games on radio; the travel is far less demanding).

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A special 10-part series from The MMQB tracing pro football’s rise through the artifacts that shaped the game, with one long-form story and shorter entries every Wednesday through the start of training camp.

Week 1: Inside Steve Sabol’s office. FULL STORY

READ THE SERIES

And he is certain that much of this physical damage was caused by endless hours of football on artificial turf, beginning with the first season in Ann Arbor and continuing for a decade and a half. After he left Michigan’s Tartan Turf, Dierdorf played games and also practiced four days a week on the unforgiving first-generation AstroTurf at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis. When the baseball Cardinals needed to work out, the football Cards would rope off a rectangular section of outfield carpet and proceed, rather than missing a day on the rug. This went on until 1987, four years after Dierdorf’s retirement, when the Cardinals moved to Arizona and the lush natural grass of Sun Devil Stadium. “It wasn’t so much playing games on artificial turf; it was all those practices,” says Dierdorf. “If you count training camp, [it was] probably 10 practices for every one game.”

Understand, Dierdorf isn’t asking for sympathy or assigning liability (beyond his own), and he isn’t damning the game to which he gave his limbs. Quite the opposite. “Football is a tough game, and you pay a price for that,” says Dierdorf. “But I don’t want anyone to misinterpret my feelings. I love the game of football. If I could go back, I would do everything over again.

“But in hindsight,” he says, “I sometimes sit and think about how different my life would be right now if I had been drafted by the Raiders or the Chargers [both teams with natural grass fields, then and now]. I wouldn’t be the cripple that I am now. I’m not feeling sorry for myself, and I’m not blaming anyone. I just wish it was different. The Cardinals didn’t say ‘Let’s put this artificial turf in so we can cripple our players.’ For a little while, the league had a love affair with artificial turf. Who knew what was happening? Nobody knew.”

* * *

It is impossible to know with any certainty the exact role artificial turf played in Dierdorf’s—or any player’s—physical breakdown. Long-retired players suffer not just from the surface that lay beneath their feet, but from the collisions that impacted the rest of their bodies. How the blame is apportioned is anybody’s guess. Yet Dierdorf’s is the extreme version of a common narrative from players in the 1970s and ’80s. “I don’t’ know anybody who liked playing on the artificial turf that we had back then,” says ESPN analyst Herman Edwards, who spent all but one of his 10 seasons in the NFL on the notorious carpet at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. “It was like playing football on concrete.”

This much is not up for debate: Players disliked early turf, they dislike modern turf a little less. Nearly all of them prefer grass.

Yet the story of artificial turf’s impact on the history of the NFL is writ large and far more complex than simply damning the early version of a product that remains in wide use. “It’s been a love-hate relationship,” says Andrew McNitt, professor of soil science and director of the Center for Sports Surface Research at Penn State. “There is a traditionalist in all of us that really wants to see games played on natural grass. But in 1970, the state of the art and science of growing natural grass was way behind where it is today. Along came artificial turf. Coaches raved about how great it was. Then there was criticism. Then there was a lot of positive talk with the development of the [current] artificial turf, and now a little bit of criticism again.”

GALLERY: Tales of the Turf

The Immaculate Reception played out just as the Steelers drew it up on the Tartan Turf at Three Rivers. (Donald J. Stetzer/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP)

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Yet in a more artistic sense, artificial turf is a canvas on which some of the most significant moments in the history of the NFL are painted and preserved forever. The undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins played their home games on Poly-Turf in the Orange Bowl. Franco Harris plucked the Immaculate Reception off the artificial turf of Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh in December of that same season. Lynn Swann acrobatically pulled Terry Bradshaw’s passes from the Florida sky in Super Bowl X, the last football game played at the Orange Bowl before it went back to grass in 1976. Edwards picked up Joe Pisarcik’s muffed handoff at Giants Stadium in the Miracle at the Meadowlands in 1978. Lawrence Taylor implored his Giants teammate to “get out there a like a bunch of crazed dogs” on that same Meadowlands turf. Buddy Ryan’s “46” Bears ran roughshod over the NFL while playing home games on artificial turf at Soldier Field. Buffalo’s K-Gun offense, the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf and the Patriots’ unbeaten 2007 regular season all were turf-based. Seven Super Bowls have been played on the plastic at the Superdome in New Orleans, more than any other venue.