CHICAGO – Soldier Field turf has gotten its fair share of critics over the years.
“It’s the turf. We want to get something a little tighter with our speed, but we probably have one of the worst outfields in the league at this point.
That was Jay Cutler in 2010. Lovie Smith didn’t even let his team take the field in the preseason following Family Fest.
But, this year, Matt Eberfels has done something no Bears coach has done before. He asked to change the soda.
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“He was very surprised,” said Soldier Field General Manager Tim LeFevour.
So, out is the Kentucky bluegrass and in is the Bermuda grass, which Eberfloss saw on the practice field in Indianapolis.
“Winter is the most stressful time for Kentucky bluegrass. It’s not at a weaker point than it was in late summer,” said Chris Acton, agronomist and vice president and superintendent of Carolina Green Corp’s field maintenance division. “Bermuda grass is a warm-season grass, so it’s past its favorite time of year. It will never be stronger than it is now.
“It’s very tight — the plant and the bottom,” Lefebvre added. “The players are going to feel that difference. I think it’s going to be a very fast game, you’ll see it on this field. If we felt we could step it up into the fall, we would have moved here years ago.
“Bermuda likes heat. Bermuda likes heat. We don’t turn on our heating system in Kentucky Blue until mid-October, third week of October. Tonight we turn on our heating system.”
The strain is called Tahoma 31. It started growing last fall in South Carolina. Then, in early April, a 50-acre swath in North Carolina was planted into a plastic grid. Because Carolina Green’s crews only cut the sod into pieces and not the bottom, they don’t have to worry about the grass taking root.
“You’re not cutting off half the root. The roots grow downwards. They hit the plastic and they start growing horizontally,” explained Acton, who has been with the Steelers for 20 years.
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“It’s like growing plants in a pot,” said Chad Price, president of Carolina Green. “We put out a potted plant and it’s all about the roots. You can’t tear it apart. That’s what happens to Bermuda on plastic. The roots make them very tight and locked together. When we harvest, we bring it all here. That, in addition to the weight, makes it a place where you can play on it right away.
The new crop was harvested Sunday and Monday before being shipped from North Carolina to the lakeshore in 38 tractor trailers.
After installing the surface on Tuesday, it will be topped with 40 tons of sand on Wednesday, just days before the Bears open the season against the 49ers.
“It’s good to have a week,” Acton said. “You don’t always have a week in stadium conditions.”
“This is normal for you to see. “We finish the preseason with the Bears and we always want to give them a fresh field to start the season,” Lefevre added. “We’ll see how long this field lasts. For us, we typically replace a field two to three times per season. Learning what we’ve learned so far about Bermuda grass, it could be a full season. Maybe another replacement.
Chad and his Carolina Green team have had similar releases in the past, loading NFL fields for the Ravens, Titans and Chiefs.
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“The proof is in the pudding,” Price said. Kansas City played a full year on our home court last year and played deep into the season. It is well maintained and Kansas City has a very harsh climate in the winter.
Fans may notice it starts to turn brown as it cools, but they add oats to help keep it green.
But will the players immediately feel the difference?
“Oh, I think they do,” replied Acton. “I think you’ll definitely notice the height of the mower.”
Going up a few inches to three-quarters can be a positive change for everyone involved.
But only time will tell.
“I hope Cairo Santos makes a good comment on Sunday,” Lefebvre joked.
The project is estimated to be in the $500,000 range, which is the typical annual budget for reconstruction, according to LeFevour. LeFevre said any additional cost would be offset by lower shipping costs on orders from North Carolina than from New Jersey.
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