It’s the fourth quarter. The New England Patriots are tied with the Chicago Bears, 10-10. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady faces a third and 9 at the Bears’ 25-yard line. He scrambles, fakes Bears’ star linebacker Brian Urlacher, and runs 11 yards for a first down.
The play keeps the Patriots drive alive, and they score, taking a 17-10 lead in the game with 8:22 left. The team eventually wins the bruising contest, 17-13. After the game, Brady is asked about the play. “Must be the turf,” he says. “I don’t think that would have happened a few weeks ago.”
The turf he was referring to is the new FieldTurf surface at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, which was installed the week before in record-setting time. In a highly unusual move for a franchise, the Patriots elected to resurface in midseason. According to Jim Nolan, the Patriots’ Vice President of Operations, it was necessary. “We found ourselves in a situation where the natural grass, especially later in the season, just wasn’t what we’d liked it to be,” he says. “Since organizationally we are always looking for the best long-term solution for the stadium, we decided to make a change.”
The Patriots needed a surface that could handle all the events held at the multipurpose facility. Gillette Stadium plays host not only to 10 preseason and regular season NFL games but also to 20 soccer events, including 16 Major League Soccer New England Revolution matches. It is also the venue for special events such as concerts. Recent concerts have featured Kenny Chesney, Bon Jovi, and the Rolling Stones. The stadium also was the site in 2006 for the filming of a new Walt Disney movie, The Game Plan, starring The Rock, which will be released in 2007.
In addition to holding up under heavy player traffic and other usage, any new surface needed to withstand typical New England fall and winter weather. The weather in 2006 was especially damaging to the original grass surface. The week before the November 5 Indianapolis Colts game, the middle of the field had already worn out and required resodding. The following week, heavy rains before the New York Jets game turned the new sod into a quagmire. Even a recently installed multimillion dollar, state-of-the-art drainage and heating system was not helping.
“In New England, the later it gets in the year, the colder it gets, and there is less opportunity to grow your way out of problems,” says Dan Krantz, the Patriots’ Director of Site Development who, along with Nolan, served as the organization’s point person on the project. “And the setup of the stadium hurts the regrowing process because late in the season we get less sun on the field. The combination of the weather, the cold, and the lack of sun doesn’t allow us to naturally correct the problems that occur on the game field.”
Beating the Clock
The decision to resurface Gillette Stadium midseason created one of the most challenging conditions any company installing artificial turf can face. The project had to be completed in less than two weeks. “Our ownership, the Kraft family, had worked with FieldTurf before, installing new surfaces in a stadium in Israel and one in Brookline, Massachusetts,” Nolan says. “So we were confident they could deliver a state-of-the-art NFL playing surface within that timeframe.”
The Patriots also were aware of this artificial turf’s advantages, namely low maintenance and unlimited playability, because the team’s indoor practice facility has the surface.
FieldTurf’s 8-day installation at Gillette Stadium beat the company’s previous record, which was 18 days. Normally, FieldTurf prefers five or six weeks to install a surface, especially in the NFL. But to accelerate that process at Gillette Stadium, the company tripled the number of crews. Rotating in shifts so a fresh crew was always available, they worked 24 hours a day. “During that time, we fed the crews and had the stadium lights on throughout the night, so they could get the job done as quickly as possible,” Nolan says.
The first four days saw the field stripped of its old sod and topsoil, the crushed stone sub-base poured, and the field graded so it was perfectly level and met NFL specifications. On the fifth day the strips of turf were rolled out and stitched together. The turf consists of long, green, grass-like fibers surrounded and stabilized by a special blend of synthetic earth — a patented mixture of smooth, rounded silica sand and cryogenic rubber granules. Four stitching machines, instead of the usual one, were brought in to sew the rolls of turf together.
Generally, FieldTurf advises a break-in period for a field to allow it to settle, but in this case, the company rolled and watered the new surface to create optimum playing conditions in time for the Bears game.
The Patriots organization expects the new field to handle the traffic at Gillette Stadium and the New England weather for the next 10 to 12 years. “With the environment that we’re in and with the number of events at the stadium, we feel that FieldTurf gives use the best short- and long-term solution,” Nolan says. “And we are thrilled that the company delivered everything that we expected it to deliver — that is, a state-of-the-art NFL field — within that very compressed timeframe.”
After the Bears game, Patriots players and coaches gave the new surface their seal of approval. Center Dan Koppen said it “is just like grass.” Head Coach Bill Belichick called FieldTurf a “huge upgrade.” Quarterback Brady went on to say that: “Play is definitely faster. It is nice for quarterbacks because you can really plant and drive the ball.”
He should know. Over the course of his career, Brady is 22-2 with more than 45 touchdown passes on artificial surfaces.