10/31/2020 - Knox News
A flash of lightning. A clap of thunder.
Rob Black didn't need another cue before ushering his football team off the field and into sheltered confines at Fulton High School during practice.
"Water's literally running down the parking lot," said Black, entering his sixth season. "We're just sitting inside looking out the window, watching the rain come down for probably 45 minutes."
The scenario would have forced Black into a crossroads in past years, when he would either cancel practice or move it indoors, usually to the weight room. He knew his practice field, at the base of a steep hill behind the school, didn't stand a chance against running water. And there was no way he would risk damaging his properly drained game field during the preseason.
But Black wasn't sweating a decision on this day.
"We go back out to the (game) field. It wasn't flooded. It wasn't soft," he said. "It was the same as when we started practice. It's (Wednesday), and already five times (during fall camp) it has poured rain while or right before we practiced. It hasn't affected us at all. We kept on going. That's one of the main differences of having synthetic turf."
Fulton's transition to artificial turf during the offseason is part of a craze that began sweeping through the PrepXtra coverage area in 2012.
Farragut, Bearden, Central, Powell and Anderson County joined Fulton as the latest schools to ditch their Bermuda grass for a synthetic product since April. The group is among 20 schools using artificial fields this season, a number that ballooned when the Haslam Family Foundation and Pilot Flying J announced a blockbuster $10 million gift to Knox County Schools last December.
The donation included fields for the school system's 13 traditional high schools and $100,000 in academic money for each school.
Of those installing turf this year, only Anderson County wasn't part of the gift, which is expected to provide the other eight fields in Knox County by 2018.
"I looked at our schedule," said Black, who has won three state titles, "Eight of our 10 games in the regular season are going to be played on turf. This is something that we've always talked about. But in reality, this is probably the only way that it could have happened, with this gift from the Haslam Family and Pilot Flying J."
An Arms Race Begins
Former Morristown East coach Dwayne Hatcher was among the voices clamoring for a facelift to the Morristown's Burke-Toney Stadium in 2006.
The then 70-year-old structure featured a natural playing surface, which in that season proved unusable by the time the postseason arrived. Consequently, the Hurricanes' blockbuster Class 4A state quarterfinal game against crosstown rival Morristown West, which also calls Burke-Toney home, paid the price. It was moved outside the county to nearby Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City.
"Our director of schools, Dr. Dale Lynch, went to the County Commission the Monday after we played that game," said Hatcher, now an offensive coordinator in at Chattahoochee High School near Atlanta. "The fact we had four middle schools and two high schools playing on that field, and the fact the two schools had those playoffs runs, the field was in such bad shape it made the decision to put turf down pretty easy for us."
The new surface, still being used this season, opened in 2007. Greeneville, after hiring Steve McCurry from turf-using A.C. Reynolds High School in Asheville, N.C., followed with an artificial field in 2008.
Grace Christian became the first school in Knoxville to go synthetic after demolishing its natural field at the end of the 2011 regular season.
"I remember (Maryville coach) George Quarles and (Alcoa coach) Gary Rankin coming by with their athletic directors to see the field," Grace Christian coach Randy McKamey said. "They came by to ask questions about the process."
An arms race ensued.
Maryville and Catholic rolled out new fields later that offseason.
Sevier County Schools then announced in 2013 a plan to turf its five high schools — Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg-Pittman, Northview Academy, Seymour and Sevier County.
Alcoa and Christian Academy of Knoxville made the switch the next year, before Webb did so in 2015.
"It's a little bit of keeping up with the Joneses," Anderson County athletic director Gary Terry said. "The doors really opened up for us to do it this year. I remember Tim Elrod (of the law offices of Ogle, Elrod & Baril) came up to me at a (Rivalry Thursday) game and said, 'This is my school, where my kids go.' He said, 'Why don't we have turf?' I said, 'Well, it's kind of a money thing.' He said, we'll let's meet and talk about that.' "
Money is the biggest hurdle in the process for most schools. The fields, which have been scrutinized for the use of crumb-rubber infill, can be costly at both ends of the spectrum.
Will Ferguson, president of Knoxville-based Baseline Sports Construction, estimated in December it would cost $600,000 for each of the 13 fields in Knox County, which eventually will include Austin-East, Carter, Gibbs, Halls, Hardin Valley, Karns, South-Doyle and West.
The price tag includes everything from excavation, installation and an integrated synthetic turf groomer, a sweeper as important to turf fields as a lawn mower is to natural grass.
The fields can have a life expectancy between eight and 10 years, with most warranties covering up to the former.
"It's about one-third of (the installation) price to replace them," Bearden coach Morgan Shinlever said. "But in the long run, the hope is that it will balance out."
Price tag with work
It's a Wednesday morning in 2015. Eddie Courtney rolls out of bed, his feet hitting the floor hours before school begins at Farragut.
By 6 a.m., the Admirals coach is at the football stadium. The lights are on.
He's in his element. But it's more like a second job than anything else.
Two-and-a-half hours later, the field is mowed and painting has started.
Hash marks. Yard lines. Numbers.
Midfield and end zone logos.
The first half of the job is done. He'll finish it, with the help of a few parents, after an afternoon practice. Black, back at Fulton, follows his own strategy that same day, sometimes working until 2 a.m. to get the job done.
The routine is the price the coaches paid — and the price some coaches still are paying — to make their facilities game-ready by Friday night.
"For me personally, from when you start in April to November or even December, I would spend an average of 12 to 25 hours per week on the field," said Courtney, entering his 21st season at Farragut. "That's lining off, painting, mowing three to four times per week. As far as my time, it's incredible how much more I have now."
More time to watch film, develop players and scheme up opponents. It's hard for any coach to argue with that perk.
The high-maintenance natural turf requires everything from topdressing to irrigation and aeration to mowing as much as twice a day during the summer, depending on the school.
A price tag comes with the work, too, with half of the schools receiving turf this year estimating they spent between $8,000 and $10,000 on turf management in 2015.
That number can grow exponentially based on need and preference.
Courtney said he spent $8,000 on paint alone last season. Terry estimates Anderson County spent close to $30,000 in total, including lawn mower repairs, hiring out the topdressing process and fronting a hefty water bill.
"You could spend whatever you have in your pocket for field maintenance," Courtney said. "Some years you have $10,000 to spend and you get by. You could spend $100,000 on a football stadium field based on the use of it."
The discrepancies in costs are part of a double-edged sword in the debate of natural vs. synthetic. Money saved on field maintenance doesn't always equal the cost to replace artificial turf down the road, in the ballpark of $200,000.
"It's not maintenance free," said Dr. John Sorochan of the University of Tennessee, one of the nation's leading experts in turf grass science and sports turf safety. "If they're going to be used for gym classes and other sports, it's going to require a significant amount of maintenance as far as decompaction and removing debris. And they're going to create wear and tear. Six to eight years is what you expect to get out of a field."
Greeneville was within that timeframe in 2013, when it had a prorated warranty replacement of its field after six years. Burke-Toney Stadium in Morristown, however, still is using its original surface.
"They do a great job taking care of their turf," said Hatcher, who resigned after the 2013 season. "Down here, we've had first turf surface in Fulton County, and it has got to be replaced. We do not drag the field the way they do in Morristown. You've got to get those rubber pellets worked up. The sweeper was used constantly up there."
Schools in Knox County will get — or already have — similar sweepers. Extending the life of the fields is a priority because schools need time accumulate funds, typically in the form of donor gifts or backing from the school system. But resources, particularly in Knox County, can vary from school to school.
"Though a plan for replacing the fields within the suggested 8-10 year timeframe has not been established," Knox County Schools spokeswoman Abbey Harris said in an email to the News Sentinel, "it will be included in future discussion of capital investment initiatives."
There's still time to develop a plan. Karns, Gibbs, Halls, Carter and South-Doyle won't receive their fields until at least 2017. West, Austin-East and Hardin Valley are scheduled for 2018.
"We're considering recommending to Knox County a maintenance protocol on a three-year-type basis that has the potential to prolong the integrity of the surfaces," Ferguson said.
The Crumb-rubber debate
Synthetic fields, like natural grass, have made technological strides during the past four decades. It's natural and soft, and less like carpet.
But it faces its own challenges.
The fields heat up quickly during the summer, forcing more water breaks, and wearing proper cleats is key in helping reduce lower-body injuries.
There's also an ongoing national conversation about the chemical makeup and safety of crumb rubber, the product of ground-up tires.
The substance helps the field absorb impact, and is used in thousands of playgrounds and athletic fields across the country. But its use came under fire in 2014 when a list compiled by former U.S. women's national team goalkeeper Amy Griffin revealed a group of athletes who had been diagnosed with cancer and previously made prolonged contact with crumb rubber.
"Where's the data to support it?" Sorochan said. "Where are the peer-reviewed, scientific studies that link the two together. We haven't seen them. There are too many variables."
Numerous studies have been conducted already, and the Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission are part of a multi-agency study by the federal government to determine the effects of the rubber.
"We have consistently said that we support all additional research," the Atlanta-based Synthetic Turf Council said in part of a statement released in February. "At the same time, we strongly reaffirm that the existing studies clearly show that artificial turf fields and playgrounds with crumb rubber infill are safe and have no link to any health issues. The current body of research is comprised of dozens of reports, including peer-reviewed academic studies and federal and state government analyses."
"It's also important to note that when we talk about crumb rubber infill in synthetic turf, we are also talking about the same recycled rubber that is used in a variety of products that are widely considered to be safe, such as sneakers, garden hoses, hospital floors, surgical gloves, and an array of other uses."
The fields being installed as part of the Haslam Family Foundation and Pilot Flying J donation include a 60/40 ratio of crumb rubber and sand. It's a balance between safety and performance.
"I don't think you can say the volume of injuries will be less," Ferguson said. "It's football. But I think you can say that the injuries may be less severe."
That's the hope of all coaches, including Black, who's happy with the changes thus far.
It didn't take long for another downpour to ensue when Fulton returned to the field during last week's practice. But there was no flash of lightning this time. No clap of thunder.
"It just poured down rain," Black said. "We were soaked. My fear was we would lose some footing. But I think we held our footing better. And our kids love it. If it feels good to them, then we've won half the battle right there."Back to In the Press
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