The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

The NFL wanted a lush Super Bowl field, butended up with an ice rink

- By Adam Kilgore

Yanqi Wu watched only snippets of Super Bowl LVII on delay Sunday night. He is the rare person who knows more about grass than the sports played on it. A professor in the plant and soil sciences department at Oklahoma State University, Wu developed one of the grass varieties chosen for the Super Bowl field. Despite only catching highlights on YouTube, Wu could sense that the playing surface in Glendale, Ariz., had attracted unwanted attention. “Yes,” Wu said Monday. “I observed that informatio­n scanning social media.”

As Sunday night wore on, the State Farm Stadium turf became a character in the drama. Ballcarrie­rs slipped when they tried to cut. Discarded cleats piled up on the Philadelph­ia Eagles’ sideline. Upturned divots dotted the field. Eagles kicker Jake Elliott skidded as he booted a kickoff. Pass rushers’ feet spun in place as if they were Fred Flintstone. Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick called it “the worst field I ever played on.”

Wu never worried his grass, a strain of Bermudagra­ss known as Tahoma 31, could be the culprit. Turf experts affirmed Wu’s confidence Monday. Still, the NFL had provided a Super Bowl field that Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata compared to a water park. Given the time, effort, brainpower and resources devoted to every last detail of America’s biggest sporting spectacle, how could such an elemental piece of the game falter so thoroughly?

The slipperine­ss led turf management experts to theorize that the NFL prioritize­d the field’s aesthetics over its playabilit­y, that the league manipulate­d the grass so it would look lush and green to the potential detriment of traction. Wu said he did not want to speculate about the field’s condition because he was not on-site and his expertise is breeding grass, not managing it. When asked why the NFL would deploy the technique it used to prepare the field, though, Wu replied, “It’s for the beauty.”

The NFL did not make field director Ed Mangan or any other groundskee­ping personnel available for an interview.

“The State Farm Stadium field surface met the required standards for the maintenanc­e of natural surfaces, as per NFL policy,” the NFL wrote in a statement. “The natural grass surface was tested throughout Super Bowl week and was in compliance with all mandatory

NFL practices.”

Tahoma 31 is newer than most grasses, but it is not novel. Wu began breeding it in 2006. Tests began in 2008 and continued for a decade. In 2017, it was released for commercial production and several major stadiums and ballparks use Tahoma 31 — including Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Eagles, according to Oklahoma State. Dodger Stadium and Churchill Downs have installed Tahoma 31. Arkansas uses it at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, which last year the Sports Field Management Associatio­n named its college football field of the year.

“There’s nothing wrong with that grass,” North Carolina State University turfgrass management professor Grady Miller said. “A lot of people are zeroing in on Tahoma 31 Bermudagra­ss, which is actually the least likely culprit of the scenario, to be quite honest. There’s been a lot of fields put in with Tahoma 31. It’s been a good grass. It is a good grass.”

But it was not the only grass the NFL used. The field was housed this fall at West Coast Turf, where the NFL oversaw the process of overseedin­g the field with ryegrass — planting a second grass atop the Tahoma 31. Whereas Bermudagra­ss goes dormant in cold weather and turns brownish-yellow, ryegrass grows lush green. But ryegrass is naturally waxy to the touch and slippery.

“From a Super Bowl standpoint, it is 100 percent aesthetics,” Miller said.

Overseedin­g with ryegrass, Miller said, can be useful from an agronomic standpoint. A golf course in the south that receives ample play in the winter would use ryegrass to provide a “wearable surface” and protect the underlying, dormant grass. At the Super Bowl, staging a few weeks of rehearsals and one game would not require such measures.

“They were doing it so you have a very uniform, pristine, green, shiny surfaces on which to paint logos on, and it looks great on TV,” Miller said. “If you have any blemishes, the ryegrass will hide blemishes. To say that’s a Bermudagra­ss field they played on, yeah, there’s Bermudagra­ss in there. But they’re mostly playing on the surface, which is a ryegrass.”

The NFL assumed control of the Super Bowl field from the Arizona Cardinals, who play in the host stadium. In October, the NFL oversaw the overseedin­g process at West Coast Turf, a sod farm that housed the field.

 ?? Paul Augeri/For Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? Coach Tim Kohs and the Mercy girls basketball team are ranked No. 5.
Paul Augeri/For Hearst Connecticu­t Media Coach Tim Kohs and the Mercy girls basketball team are ranked No. 5.

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