Tuesday, May 10, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

Running back Steven Jackson was nervous. He was nervous that the AstroTurf surface at the Edward Jones Dome would continue to cause injuries to him and his teammates. He was nervous that his career would be shortened by the rock-like surface. He was nervous that the AstroTurf might never be replaced.

With one not so simple decision, every Rams player, coach, and probably every Rams’ opponent playing in St. Louis in 2005 exhaled Tuesday as the team finally came to an agreement to rid itself of the AstroTurf at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rams executive vice president and general counsel Bob Wallace, along with representatives from the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC), and the St. Louis Regional Convention & Sports Complex Authority (RSA) announced in a press conference at the Edward Jones Dome that a synthetic turf will be installed in time for the upcoming season.

When Jackson was informed late last week that he no longer had to worry about the AstroTurf, he smiled wide and let out a sigh of relief. Coach Mike Martz did the same.

“I think this is important for a lot of reasons, primarily the health concerns of all the players,” Martz said. “This is exciting to be able to play on a more forgiving surface and that we’re now in sync with the rest of the NFL in terms of playing surfaces.”

The synthetic turf has become the surface of choice for football fields all over the country in recent years.

The current turf at the Edward Jones Dome, rated as the second worst in the league last season in a poll of NFL players, will be taken up and removed in time for the start of the 2005-06 season.

It wasn’t just complaints from the players that led to the move. The Rams’ lease agreement with the Edward Jones Dome requires the facility to rank in the top 25 percent of NFL stadiums by July 2005.

“I’m pleased that the Rams were patient until we could find a system that also met our need to host other events on the Dome floor,” said Bruce Sommer. Vice President and Director of Facilities of the CVC. “Thanks are due the St. Louis Regional Convention & Sports Complex Authority board members for their timely funding which enabled us to make this critical purchase in time to meet the deadline.”

FieldTurf, the company that produces the same product the team uses at its indoor practice facility at Rams Park, will replace the 10-year old carpet at the Dome. The upgrade has been a long time coming.

After months of planning, the agreement for this season became amenable when it was realized that there are no planned events for the Edward Jones Dome floor during this season. That allows the turf to be placed and left down for the entire season.

“Under all the rhetoric, both sides were trying to accomplish the same thing,” Wallace said. “It’s not like we had conflicting goals. I was confident that we would get it done.”

The turf the team is set to use for the upcoming season is simply a temporary replacement, though.

After the season is over, the synthetic turf can be removed and replaced by whatever the newest technology is, likely something that can be moved in pieces.

As the two sides attempted to work out a deal, there were some reports that both sides were posturing over money. At one point, the Rams even offered to pay for the upgrades, but in the end, Wallace said money was never a problem.

“At no time were economics an issue,” Wallace said. “Other than the brief moments where people were saying ‘we’ll pay for this, we’ll pay for that,’ there was no discussion of money. The Dome has always had the money for what they knew were their responsibilities.”

Representatives from the Rams and the CVC have been on a fact-finding mission for most of the offseason in an attempt to find the right fit for a surface.

One group, including Rams’ vice president of operations John Oswald, Sommer, and Brian McMurtry, Director of Operations of the Edward Jones Dome/America’s Center, traveled to Toronto at the end of March to investigate the synthetic turf conversion system at SkyDome. That system is installed using a tray system in which there are 800 “trays,” each containing a piece of FieldTurf measuring eight feet by 14 feet.

Because of conflicts with other events that take place at the Edward Jones Dome and America’s Center, the Rams and the CVC have been searching for a turf that can easily be removed and replaced each week.

The turf in Toronto has the basic idea of what the CVC was looking for, but it had some flaws, including its weight (each tray is about 1,500 pounds) and the amount of seams between the trays. Until there is a better system that has fewer seams and is easier to move, the Edward Jones Dome will use the regular synthetic turf like the kind used at the Rams Park practice facility.

“They were not convinced that the tray system would be acceptable,” Wallace said.

The Dome received offers from a number of companies before choosing the FieldTurf. FieldTurf is an “in-fill” system that has a reputation for feeling like natural grass.

Wallace said the various groups that make these synthetic surfaces have given him every reason to believe that by the time the 2006-07 season begins there will be a new technology in place that will become the more permanent solution as the Rams’ playing surface.

“I get the indication that almost every month, every week, every day, they are making progress on perfecting this stuff,” Wallace said. “We are very hopeful that something will be done.”

In the meantime, Jackson and the rest of the Rams’ organization can let out one more sigh of relief and turn their attention to taking care of business on the field instead of worrying about the business off of it.