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Steelers' surface at Heinz gets another makeover

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers own one of the NFL's
greatest home-field advantages at Heinz Field, where winds howling
off the three rivers torment opposing kickers and fans stomping on
the upper-deck bleachers create a disruptive din.

The Steelers, winners of 75 percent of their regular season home
games since moving into Heinz in 2001, only wish they didn't have
so many home fields.

After four high school regional championship games and the South
Florida-Pitt game were played on Heinz Field's fast-deteriorating
grass in 17 hours last weekend, 2 1/2 acres of brand new sod were laid
atop the old turf. The final strip went down Sunday night, less
than 24 hours before Monday night's Dolphins-Steelers kickoff.

That is, the scheduled starting time. Heavy rain and lightning
caused a 25-minute delay in the scheduled 8:30 p.m. EST kickoff,
with both teams sent to their locker rooms as stadium workers
hurried to repaint the yard lines and goal lines that had washed
away. Fans were also ordered out of their uncovered lower bowl
seats.

The teams were given nine minutes to hurriedly finish up their
previously delayed warmups before the rain and the game started at
nearly the same time. Only a few yard lines were visible on the
field, and the national anthem and other pregame activities were
canceled.

The weather was more reminiscent of Miami than Pittsburgh, with
the rain so heavy at times that it resembled that which fell during
the Steelers' 13-3 win at Miami on Sept. 26, 2004. That game, which
featured Ben Roethlisberger's debut as the Steelers quarterback,
was pushed back to a nighttime start after Hurricane Jeanne struck
south Florida earlier that day.

With at least three more home games remaining, the Steelers were
convinced the old turf -- where brown patches kept growing bigger
between the hash marks -- had to go as late fall gave way to winter.

"It's about providing a good field for both teams," Heinz
Field manager Jimmie Sacco said.

The Steelers have had repeated problems maintaining a quality
grass field since they left Three Rivers Stadium and its
asphalt-hard artificial turf in 2000.

In 2002, the grass field was replaced three times from spring
until the end of the season; another year, the grass in the middle
of the field was torn out and replaced.

The Steelers felt they had solved their problems in 2003 by
installing DD GrassMaster, a surface in which the grass is anchored
with synthetic fibers. However, that grass has regularly worn down,
leaving barren patches that were painted to give a grass-like
appearance.

"When you get a lot of play on it, it's going to wear," said
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, whose team shares Heinz Field with the
Steelers. "There's nothing you can do about it."

Across the state, the Philadelphia Eagles are experiencing the
same problem at Lincoln Financial Field, which they share with
Temple. New sod will be laid there before the Eagles' Sunday home
game against Seattle.

Like the Steelers, the Eagles are putting down turf they believe
is sturdy and heavy enough to last the rest of the season.

The Steelers' old surface was beginning to raise the ire of
opponents. Several Cleveland players called it the NFL's worst
following the Browns' 31-28 loss on Nov. 11.

"Everyone knows what they're getting into when they come
here," kicker Phil Dawson said. "It's a tough place to play with
great tradition. They've got great fans here. And I wouldn't be
surprised if the field was part of it."

An NFL players survey last year ranked the Patriots' Gillette
Stadium and Heinz Field as the two worst playing fields. The
Patriots subsequently yanked up the grass and put down grass-like
artificial turf.

However, Steelers owner Dan Rooney has long favored grass,
believing it causes fewer injuries. Several former Steelers stars
experienced career-altering injuries on Three Rivers Stadium's
artificial turf, including Rod Woodson and Jack Lambert.

Rooney isn't alone in his thinking. A majority of colder-weather
NFL teams with open-air stadiums still play on grass: the Browns,
Broncos, Chiefs, Bears, Packers, Eagles, Redskins and Steelers.

So do the Titans and Panthers, who play in cities where the
late-season weather is cold to moderate.

Artificial turf teams in cold weather cities are the Ravens,
Bills, Bengals, Patriots, Seahawks, and the New York Jets and
Giants, who share Giants Stadium.

The only warm weather team with an artificial turf field is
Miami. All the domed stadium teams, of course, have artificial
turf: the Colts, Falcons, Lions, Saints, Rams and Vikings, and so
does Texas Stadium in Dallas.

The latest field fiasco apparently has the Steelers rethinking
their grass-only policy. They already practice regularly on Field
Turf in their indoor practice building.

Some in Pittsburgh wonder if a different type of grass surface
or altered maintenance might help the Steelers keep grass and avoid
a switch to artificial turf.

When Pitt's players arrived at Heinz Field for their spring game
in April 2006, they were surprised to find the field markings and
paint remained from the Steelers' final home game Jan. 1 --
suggesting little had been done to the turf since then. Two blocks
down the street at the Pirates' PNC Park, there was a lush grass
surface.

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher always wanted to keep grass.
New coach Mike Tomlin also sees nothing wrong with Heinz Field's
grass, possibly because he hasn't lost a game on it.

"It is part of playing football in December and January, when
you play where we play," he said. "As long as we deal with it
better than our opponent, I love our field."