Could grass return to Memorial Stadium?
Memorial Stadium hasn't had a grass field since 1970. With changes to Nebraska's outdoor practice fields, could a return to grass be in the future for the stadium itself?
It all began May 2. Nebraska started tearing out its current outdoor practice fields — one artificial turf, one grass — in favor of two full grass fields.
“Injuries are higher on turf than on grass,” Coach Matt Rhule said during a radio appearance in May. “When I came here, there had been a rash of knee injuries going into this season. There had been a bunch of ACLs over the last six years, a bunch of meniscus [tears]. Football’s a violent game, but we already have turf in [Hawks Championship Center]. I wanted to put grass outside because I believe it’s safer.”
Players at the professional level have said they prefer grass fields to artificial turf. The NFLPA has provided studies to highlight the difference in injuries between the two. A report from spring showed that players have a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf in comparison to grass. The data was collected from the NFL from 2012-2018, and showed a much higher rate of non-contact knee, foot and ankle injuries for players when playing on grass versus turf.
While the construction on the new practice fields at Nebraska began May 2, it might actually be more accurate to say it all began sooner than that. Rhule — who had two grass practice fields while coaching at Baylor, and is a big advocate for player safety — had the idea to update Nebraska’s outdoor practice fields, but knew it might not be possible. Rhule’s Temple teams practiced on artificial turf only — because you make do with what you have available, he said — so there was a chance it wouldn’t be possible at Nebraska right now.
It never hurts to ask, so Rhule took the idea to athletic director Trev Alberts.
“My philosophy that I work with our staff on is number one, the last thing that coaches want to hear me say is no,” Alberts said in a recent one-on-one interview. “I’d rather try to understand what they’d like to do, then say I’m going to go see if we can make it happen. Sometimes I can make it happen, and something I’m going to have to say we can’t.”
In Rhule’s case for grass turf, Alberts thought he might be able to make it happen. He had a few questions.
How are we going to do this?
What’s the timeline?
What gives us the best chance to have grass that's ready to go for fall camp?
“I’ll tell you what, our staff just executed the idea flawlessly,” Alberts said. “The team’s been on the grass all fall camp and it’s held up very, very well. I think it's been a safer environment for the players.
“The thing is that we hire people that are industry experts in their field. The last thing I'm going to do is micromanage people who know way more than I know about things. Matt has a particular passion around player development, but also recovery and health and safety. This is something that's really important to him.
“He knows twice what I know about that kind of stuff, so I'm certainly not going to tell him otherwise.”
To address and manage those questions on feasibility, Nebraska enlisted the help of the Nebraska Sports Field Management Association (NESFMA) and the group got to work making it happen. The Sports Field Managers at Nebraska documented the progress on their Twitter account through summer, highlighting the various steps in removing the artificial turf and replacing it with HGT (Healthy Grass Technology) Kentucky Bluegrass.
In early July, Nebraska Extension Turfgrass Management Educator Amanda Folck shared some insight on the project and the decision to use the specific HGT Kentucky Bluegrass that the Huskers selected for the new practice fields.
First — and very importantly — it’s a grass type that is best suited for a climate like Nebraska’s. Whatever you use has to hold up in extreme and cold temperatures throughout various parts of the year. HGT Kentucky Bluegrass does that.
Second — and arguably even more importantly — it holds up well under significant use.
“With Kentucky Bluegrass, it’s a good grass to use because of the deal with recovery,” Folck said. “In the recovery, it has something called rhizomes. Rhizomes is a spread type, and with that spread type, it will recover faster from areas of traffic with the student-athletes here on this field.”
The same grass type is used at Nebraska’s Hibner Stadium, as well as for the track and field team’s practice space north of the Devaney Sports Center. Students within the Turfgrass Science and Management program at Nebraska help maintain the various fields on campus, and were vital to the success of the football practice field’s switch to grass this summer.
Let’s get back to the headline of this newsletter. One of the biggest questions that came from the decision to update Nebraska’s outdoor practice fields was what it meant for the future of Memorial Stadium’s field. The Huskers removed the grass inside Memorial Stadium in favor of AstroTurf in 1970, and later FieldTurf in 1999. The FieldTurf was later replaced (for new FieldTurf) in 2005, 2013 and 2022.
Could grass make a return to Memorial Stadium?
“I could see it returning,” Alberts said. “You have to consider that there's the opportunity cost but I've thought about it. We have been working hard at thinking through how we activate Memorial Stadium more than seven Saturdays a year. Some of it's not just in the stadium itself, it's the ancillary. What's really got us thinking is the Go Big Project. While there's been some challenges with it, it is an incredible blessing, not only because of the dramatic increase of how we're going to be able to support our student-athletes, but because it’s opened up an incredible opportunity for us to rethink how we use our spaces at Memorial Stadium. How do we integrate academics? How do we think about community engagement?”
Nebraska will weigh that opportunity cost in due time. Events like Volleyball Day in Nebraska (and the Garth Brooks concert in 2021) highlight the potential of Memorial Stadium’s usage beyond football games. Does a grass field change that opportunity?
“We'll have to think through that,” Alberts said. “I am certainly not suggesting that fans get ready for a grass field right now. I'm fairly confident that our football coach would love to see it be grass though.”
Rhule played it coy when asked about the potential of a grass field inside Memorial Stadium last May. He said his goal is ultimately to provide the safest and healthiest playing environment for his players, but he’d have to get into the stadium and really feel it out before making a statement.
For now, Nebraska has made the update to two full grass fields outside of its practice facility. Two artificial turf fields remain — one inside of the Hawks Championship Center and one outside of the new practice facility (just south of the grass fields) — but 480 rolls of sod have been put to the test through fall camp as Nebraska prepares for a new season.
Depending on how things go, maybe Memorial Stadium is next. “This isn’t the old Kentucky Bluegrass from the ‘80s,” Alberts will tell you. There’s science behind it all now, which makes it an appealing option to consider.
But sometimes, it extends beyond science. Sometimes there’s also just a little bit of nostalgia to the whole thing. The nostalgia won’t make the decisions, but it can be fun to ask the question.
“I don't have any strong feelings about it but I loved playing on grass,” Alberts said. “I think football is grass stains and dirt on your uniform.”
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