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Talking about artificial turf, and the good old days [Commentary]

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This column is going to focus mainly on grass, or fake grass, so don't say you weren't warned. Actually, it's only partially about real grass and artificial turf, and, looking at it from a more macro viewpoint, more about how the past gets distorted in our minds.

That distortion I'm talking about usually results in nostalgia, which, I think, is a trap most of the time. If you want to send me running for the hills, just say, "back in the good old days," and I'm gone. There are surely some things that I miss from bygone years, like not having to take my shoes off at the airport security gate, and not worrying whether I was going to get a ticket in the mail after I ran a red light, but, the "good old days" that get brought up from time to time, usually when my friends have had too many drinks, are just a symptom our minds getting the better of us.

Things were likely much the same in whatever era you're framing as happier and easier than the present one. That statement cuts both ways, because things aren't so much greater now, either. Technological advances have made the world smaller and easier to navigate (and have made it easier for lazy journalists to write their columns away from the office), we've come a long way, but still have a long way to go, in the areas of racial and sexual equality, and the Orioles got into the playoffs last season, but, really, we're still dealing with the same problems we have been forever.

In other words, we have not reached the golden epoch of human existence just yet.

Artificial turf, however, has gotten a whole lot better, at least in my lifetime. This thought came to me while I was interviewing Aberdeen football head coach Johnny Brooks on Wednesday afternoon. We were chatting about the new turf field being installed at Aberdeen High School, which will ready for the Eagles' homecoming game against Perryville next Friday, when I asked Johnny, who as a player quarterbacked Havre de Grace to a state title in 1981, about the old style of turf. He said, "I didn't like playing on that stuff at all. You could feel it in your knees when you showered after the game."

I never played organized football, so I can only give my view as a soccer player, but the stuff that Johnny was talking about, which I always imagined was a half-inch thick strip of green fiberglass carpet on top of cement, was awful to play on. We didn't know any better then, because if you played indoor soccer, you were either on a basketball court (anyone who ever played at the Havre de Grace Middle School gym as part of the Harford County indoor rec league should send me an e-mail), or on Astro-turf, as it was called. It was simply a place to play soccer in the winter.

The first time I ever played on artificial turf, at what was then Bobby McAvan's Maryland Sports Arena, on Route 40 between Aberdeen and Edgewood, I showed up with a pair of spikes because I wasn't sure whether it was going to be like actual outdoor grass or not. I left with a pair of very sore heels and turf burns on both knees and elbows.

The same type of artificial turf was being used for outside soccer venues until I was out of college, at least, because that's what I played on in my outdoor recreational league games at the University of Maryland. By that time, at the age of 22, my joints were beginning to sing a little bit from a decade of use and abuse, and I remember driving home from those games with my ankles throbbing. Again, we didn't know any better. It was expensive to keep a proper grass field in playing condition, and we were just a little rec league meant for college folks who couldn't hack it as walk-ons or scrub-team players at the varsity level, so we took ibuprofen after the games and put Neosporin on the burns that peppered our shins.

I also remember, however, way back in my youth-league days, of there being talk about some magic form of turf that was like real grass. The U.S. National Team practiced on it apparently, and some of my teammates at the time, who through six degrees of separation knew some kid who played on the U16 Olympic Development team, claimed to have had first-hand accounts of this wonderful stuff. You could slide on it without getting your legs torn to shreds. You could get under the ball and make a nice lofted cross without stubbing your toe. I think the material my teammates were talking about was an early form of what has just been laid down at Aberdeen High School's football stadium.

I have played some pickup games on the new style of turf, it's just plain better. And, it probably promotes a better, faster game than a lot of the grass fields you're going to find at the high school level. I wish I'd have gotten a chance to play competitive-level soccer on that stuff because it looks fun.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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