Fields of Dreams: Playing surface inside Ohio Stadium has flipped from grass to synthetic

A member of the grounds crew picks up divots during a time out during a 2006 game against Minnesota.
Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State football is celebrating a century at the Horseshoe this year. In recognition of that, The Columbus Dispatch will be sharing special Ohio Stadium content throughout this week.

If grass could talk, it would have a few choice words for its fraudulent cousin − artificial turf.

But grass can’t talk, so it’s up to Archie Griffin to explain what it felt like when playing on the first synthetic surface in Ohio Stadium history.

“All it was was carpet laid over blacktop. It would cut you up and burn the skin right off you,” said Griffin, who arrived at Ohio State in 1972, one year after the school removed grass that had been growing since Ohio Stadium opened in 1922. 

“You did feel faster, because of the traction. It was sticky,” Griffin said, adding that players wore shoes with small knobs instead of regular cleats. “But Woody used to wet it down, because people were tearing up their knees on that stuff, because it was too catchy. And it was hard, no question about it.”

Don Patko, Ohio State Associate Athletic Director for Facilities Operations verified Griffin’s account of pain and suffering associated with the original plastic surface, which consisted of green nylon over a 5/8 inch pad.

In 1971, when this photo was taken, Ohio State installed artifical turf at Ohio Stadium.

“We played in the stadium,” said Patko, who was a member of the OSU soccer team in the mid-1980s. “It was no fun when you’re in the shower and screaming because part of the skin was ripped off the lower half of your butt. And you can get staph infections, too, because your skin is opened up.” 

The AstroTurf also required the field slope from its 14-inch crown in the middle down to the drains located near the sidelines. 

“That was another drawback of that field. You would throw a pass from the center of the field, and because it was higher you could overthrow a guy on the sideline,” Patko explained.

Then why go synthetic? Because all the kids were doing it. By 1971 the national trend was to install AstroTurf, the brand name for the synthetic surface that in 1966 made its first well-publicized appearance in the Houston Astrodome. Other teams soon followed, including OSU, which liked how the carpet required less maintenance than grass and allowed for multiple sports activities without fear of tearing up a field where football was the priority.

Ohio State replaced the original AstroTurf with similar synthetic surfaces until grass returned in 1990. The grass, called Prescription Athletic Turf, was developed at Purdue and included a vacuum system to drain excess water. It remained in the Shoe for 17 seasons.

The majority of players love playing on grass. The skill positions waver a bit in their enthusiasm, because grass becomes slippery and slower in wet weather. But for linemen, there is nothing like the real stuff.

Paul Tankovich (left) and Brandon Schwartz paint the north end zone at Ohio Stadium in 1998.

“Gotta love you some grass,” said Steve Rehring, who was at left guard through 2008. “On a perfect day with grass? That first game felt like carpet. By late in the season it was beat up pretty good, but even practice-wise I’d rather be on grass, because your feet don’t get as hot as on turf.”

And Rehring’s skin never burned off when playing on grass.

“But then I never moved fast enough to slide across the grass and burn,” he said, laughing.

In 2007, former Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman experienced the transition from grass back to a synthetic surface, which was much improved over the green concrete of the 1970s and ’80s. The grass was composted; previous synthetic surfaces were recycled. 

“There’s nothing that beats real grass,” Boeckman said, adding that synthetic turf varies from site to site. “We played some away games where the turf was not real good.”

The synthetic infill system OSU installed in 2007 was an early version of what is in use today: a 2 1/2-inch profile of fiber, sand and rubber that sits on a crushed limestone layer. Compared to the indoor-outdoor carpeting of 1971, the current artificial turf is cooler – though not exactly cool – and more forgiving.  

Mark Bowser, foreground, and other workers stretch the field as they install an artificial turf at Ohio Stadium in 2007.

But those tiny rubber pellets can be annoying. 

“The rubber pebbles were interesting, because after the game you wonder how they got there,” Rehring said. “If you got one of those in your eye, and you’re at the bottom of the pile with your helmet on and in the middle of a drive, it was never a fun situation.”

The original 2007 synthetic field has been upgraded twice, most recently this summer. Players say it has more bounce than last season’s surface. And no burns.

Griffin only wishes the new stuff was around back when he had to “wear pads on areas of bodies that bent” to protect from skin abrasions. 

“Those were the areas that hit the ground, and when that happened you got torn up,” Griffin said.

Too bad for those Buckeyes the green blacktop didn’t get torn up sooner.


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