There's nothing artificial about danger of NFL turf this year


PHILADELPHIA -- Otho Davis looked out his office window, surveying the wreckage of this football season.

"I don't ever recall having a stretch like this," the Philadelphia Eagles' trainer was saying Monday. "We've had eight major injuries -- five of 'em knees -- and we've only played five games. I feel like a buzzard sometimes, waiting for the next guy to drop."

As Davis spoke, guard Eric Floyd hobbled past on crutches. Center David Alexander walked gingerly under his knee wrap. Defensive end Clyde Simmons sat on a table, waiting to have his bruised knee examined.

Linebacker Ken Rose underwent surgery to repair the fractured right fibula suffered in Sunday's 17-6 loss to Chicago. Quarterback Randall Cunningham went down with a similar injury to his left leg against the New York Jets the previous week.

Floyd is out for the year, as are wide receiver Fred Barnett, guard Rob Selby, kick returner Jeff Sydner and rookie cornerback Derrick Frazier. Each player tore up a knee on artificial turf. It appeared Simmons went down with the same thing Sunday, but he escaped with just a bruise.

This time . . .

"I never used to take sides, turf vs. grass," said Davis, who has been the Eagles' trainer since 1973. "But with what I see happening this season, I definitely lean toward grass.

"There have been studies that showed the injury rate is the same on grass and on turf. That's why I never raised much of a fuss. Some of our worst injuries, like Randall [in Green Bay, 1991] and Ben Smith [Cleveland, 1991], came on grass. But this season, I'm seeing things that really concern me.

"The injury the Chicago receiver [Wendell Davis] got in our game is a good example. He tore two patella tendons, one on each knee, on one play. I only recall seeing three of those [tears] in 40 years. He got two in one play."

Wendell Davis wasn't even touched on the play. The 6-foot, 188-pound receiver was running a deep post pattern and tried to leap for an underthrown pass. His feet caught on the turf and his legs buckled beneath him. He will miss the remainder of the season and, at 27, his football career is in doubt.

"That was turf all the way," Floyd said. "The guy was reaching for the ball and he just blew out. No way that would have happened on grass."

Guard Mike Schad said: "On grass, your foot would have slid. On the turf, your foot sticks and your knee locks. That's how you get hurt."

"I don't know what the statistics say, I just know playing on turf isn't natural," said Floyd, who returned to the Vet Monday to begin rehabilitating his left knee for next season.

"People in the stands don't know what it's like. It's like somebody spread a bed sheet across a cement floor and said, 'OK, let's play tackle.' There is almost no cushion. Just running on it hurts."

Players dread the artificial surface at the Vet. Not only is it rock-hard but, because it doubles as a baseball field, it is uneven. There are seams around the base cutouts and the pitcher's mound that lurks under a football player's feet like trip wires in a minefield.

"I'm scared to death in that one end zone," safety Wes Hopkins said, referring to the west end zone that straddles the baseball field. "I saw Sammy Lilly [ex-Eagles cornerback] get his foot caught in one of those seams and wreck his knee.

"They should rip up all the [artificial] turf and put down grass in every stadium. If the league really cared, it could do it. But as long as the stands are full and the TV ratings are high, the owners don't care.

"It is such hypocrisy," Hopkins said. "The league will fine [Phoenix safety] Chuck Cecil $30,000 for a hard hit and say, 'We're protecting our players.' But they make us play on artificial turf and every week a dozen guys blow out knees, and it's like, 'Well, that's part of the game.'

"If you really want to make the game safer, put it on grass."

Hopkins also faults the NFL Players Association for not making turf an issue in collective bargaining. What could be more fundamental to a player's welfare than the surface on which he plays? Safer conditions mean longer careers, longer careers mean more earnings.

"The only way we'll get anything done is if the players take it on themselves and say, 'We're not playing on turf anymore,' " Hopkins said. "We have to raise enough of a stink that [the owners] have to listen.

"It has reached a point where injuries are like an epidemic. This is my 11th season and I can't remember a year when so many players went down. It makes me angry because I've been through knee surgery and rehab and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

Anyone who ever walked on artificial turf knows what Hopkins says is true. It is madness to play a game as fast and physical as football on these pool-table surfaces. The inherent risk is multiplied, and the wear in the joints caused by the constant pounding is undeniable.

But what can be done?

Seven NFL teams play in domed stadiums, in which artificial turf is standard. Three teams, including the Eagles, play in multipurpose stadiums, in which the primary tenant is a baseball team that wants artificial turf because it drains quickly and cuts down on rainouts.

What to do?

The players should fight to have all outdoor, football-only stadiums converted to grass. There is no reason why Giants Stadium, Texas Stadium, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., should have artificial turf. Soldier Field in Chicago and Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium switched from turf to grass. The others should be urged to follow.

Also, Otho Davis does not accept the argument that domes must have artificial turf. Said Davis: "I'm not an agronomist, but technology has advanced to where we have roofs that let in sunlight, things like that."

But what can the Eagles do at the Vet, a city-owned stadium in which the Phillies call the shots?

"It is like renting a house with a red roof," Davis said. "You might not like it, but you can't change it because it's not yours. You might not be able to change [to grass], but you could try a few things to make what you've got better.

"They used to have artificial turf in the Orange Bowl and it was real tacky so the players' feet would stick. They started wetting [the turf] before games and that made it slick. Players would slip, but at least they weren't getting hurt as often. We could try something like that."

There is another solution. The Orange Bowl folks struck upon it later. They tore up the artificial turf and put down grass. If only more people would catch on.

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