CHICAGO – Soldier Field’s turf has had its fair share of critics over the years.
“The turf is what it is. With our speed, we’d like to get something a little bit tighter, but we probably have one of the worst fields in the league at this point.”
That was Jay Cutler back in 2010. Lovie Smith wouldn’t even let his team take the field at Family Fest the following preseason.
But, this year, Matt Eberflus did something no Bears coach has ever done before. He asked to switch up the sod.
“Totally surprised,” remarked Soldier Field general manager Tim LeFevour.
So, Kentucky bluegrass is out and Bermuda grass is in, which Eberflus saw firsthand on the practice field in Indianapolis.
“Summer is the most stressful time for Kentucky bluegrass. It’s never really at a weaker point than it is at the end of the summer,” said agronomist and Carolina Green Corp. Field Maintenance Division vice president and superintendent Chris Ecton. “Bermuda grass is a warm season grass, so it just went through its favorite time of year. It’s never going to be stronger than it is right now.”
“It’s so much tighter – the plant and the footing,” LeFevour added. “Players are going to feel that difference. It’s going to be a faster game, I think, you’ll see on this turf. We would have gone to this years ago if we felt we could grow it longer into the fall season.
“Bermuda loves warmth. Bermuda loves heat. With the Kentucky blue we wouldn’t turn our heating system on until mid-October, third week of October. We’ll be turning our heating system on tonight”
The strain is called Tahoma 31. It started growing in South Carolina last fall. Then in early April, a 50-acre swath was transplanted to a plastic grid in North Carolina. Because Carolina Green’s crew only cuts the sod into strips and not from underneath, they don’t have to worry about the grass taking root.
“You’re not cutting off half the roots. The roots grow down. They hit the plastic and they start growing horizontally,” explained Ecton, who worked for the Steelers for 20 years.
“It’s like growing a plant in a pot,” echoed Carolina Green president Chad Price. “We pull out a potted plant and it’s all root-bound. You can’t tear it apart. That’s exactly what happens with Bermuda on plastic. It makes the roots really tight and they lock in together. When we harvest it, we’re bringing all of that here. That plus the weight of it makes it where you can play on it immediately.”
The new crop was harvested on Sunday and Monday before being shipped in 38 tractor trailers from North Carolina to the lakefront.
After they finish installing the surface Tuesday, it’ll be rolled down with 40 tons of sand on Wednesday, leaving only a few days until the Bears kick off the season against the 49ers.
“It’s nice to have a week,” Ecton said. “In a stadium setting, you don’t always have a week.”
“This is typical of what you’ll see. We’ll finish a preseason with the Bears and we’ll always want to give them a new field to start the season,” added LeFevour. “We’ll see how long this field goes. For us, we’ll typically replace a field two to three times a season. Learning what we’re learning so far about the Bermuda grass, it might be a full season. It might be one other replacement.”
Chad and his Carolina Green team have had similar rollouts in the past, installing NFL fields for the Ravens, Titans and Chiefs.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Price said. “Kansas City played an entire year on our field last year and played deep into the season. It held up well and Kansas City is a pretty tough climate in the winter.”
Fans might notice it begin to turn brown as it gets colder, but they’ll add rye to help keep it green.
But will the players feel a difference right away?
“Oh, I think they will,” Ecton replied. “I think they’ll notice the mowing height for sure.”
Going from a little more than an inch to three-quarters might be a welcomed change for everyone involved.
Only time will tell, though.
“I’m hoping Cairo Santos has a good comment on Sunday,” joked LeFevour.
The project is ballparked in the $500,000 range, which according to LeFevour is typically the annual budget for resodding. LeFevour says any additional cost will be offset by lower shipping price with orders coming from North Carolina instead of New Jersey.