No Mow Drama: Wilson?s new field will be light on maintenance.
No Mow Drama: Wilson?s new field will be light on maintenance. Credit: Charles Steck

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When his senior season kicks off, Wilson placekicker and occasional free safety Dylan Walsh won’t be embarrassed by his team’s home field. That’ll be a first.

“I can’t believe a D.C. public school would be getting a facility like this,” says Walsh of the state-of-the-art carpet that his Tigers will play on beginning this year. “This is going to be incredible. Amazing.”

To paraphrase presidential candidate John Edwards, there have long been two Washingtons when it comes to student athletic facilities. There are those at the private schools, and those at the public schools.

Walsh knows both sides of the haves/have-nots split, having spent two years at tony Gonzaga, where athletes are—get this!—treated like real human beings. He’s spent another 10 years in the D.C. Public Schools, where the city’s inhumanity to coaches and athletes has long been on display.

“At Gonzaga, the fields were great,” says Walsh, who also plays on Wilson’s soccer squad. “At Wilson, they were crap. Rocks and holes and everything. Horrible.”

But signs that the proverbial playing field may be leveling began showing this summer. Wilson’s field is one of six currently being resurfaced from grass to artificial turf as part of the biggest makeover to ever hit the city’s high school sports landscape. Along with new football fields, the schools (Wilson, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Dunbar, McKinley Tech, and Ballou) will get new running tracks, as well as press boxes and, in some cases, lighting.

The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission is overseeing the work. Funding for all but the Ballou field, which is being financed by Fannie Mae, will take $21.5 million out of the city’s coffers.

Commission spokesperson Tony Robinson says his group, which operates independently of the D.C. government, was asked by Mayor Adrian Fenty to take over the public works project “because the schools screwed up the project and weren’t able to move forward.” One sign of the disconnect between the mayor’s office and the established chain of command in the school system: Allen Chin, the 17-year head of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs athletics in the city’s secondary schools, says he was totally shut out of the project. “I don’t know anything about [the new fields],” says Chin. “I had no input in that at all.” (Chin, the Washington Post reported on Aug. 16, will soon be replaced on orders from schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.)

Turner Construction, the same megacontractor building the new Yankee Stadium, is doing the work. Tom Engers, project executive with Turner, says “about 100” workers have been on the job since mid-June.

Engers says the work has been hampered by problems both underground—“There was a very poor sub-grade to the tracks at some schools,” he says—and above ground—“At McKinley, all the bleachers were gone. We were told all the seating was stolen. We’re going to put new ones in.”

“We normally get six or seven months for a job like this,” says Engers. “But we’re trying to squeeze it into about three months. But it’s been fun. The cooperation with the schools and the coaches has been amazing, with people making decisions literally overnight to keep this going. This is going to be something the city can be proud of. When this is done, these fields will go up against any facilities in the country.”

Not that long ago, the decision to replace real grass with fake stuff would have been controversial on any football field, let alone one for high school kids.

The first artificial surface for sports was called Chemgrass and was invented by Monsanto, the chemical giant. The first installation of note came in time for the 1966 baseball season, when the just-opened Astrodome in Houston was given a field of Chemgrass, a fake grass product whose name was changed to Astroturf to promote its use in the pro football and baseball venue.

Over the next several years, Astroturf was installed at Major League Baseball and NFL stadiums across the country (and a young Bill Clinton’s El Camino). But before long athletes began complaining that whatever benefits the new surface offered to owners—primarily lower maintenance costs and a futuristic ambience—were offset by an increase in the risk of injury to those who played the games.

Football players were particularly critical of the field at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, which was often described as painted asphalt. (Longtime Redskins fans should remember George Rogers and his chronic “turf toe” absences.) The most famous critic, however, was a baseball player—Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies slugger Dick Allen—who, legend holds, once said of Astroturf, “If horses can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.”

Though no study has ever provided conclusive data that the incidence of injury is higher on artificial turf than grass, Astroturf began to disappear from outdoor venues in baseball. In fact, the Washington Nationals, né the Montreal Expos, were the last National League team to play on an artificial surface, in Olympic Stadium.

But, because of advances in artificial turf science, the public opinion pendulum has swung back toward acceptance of the fake stuff. Though horses still can’t eat it, the new family of turfs is a lot more like real grass and less like painted asphalt.

Several varieties are now available, but Engers says the D.C. schools will use a product from FieldTurf, a Montreal-based firm whose sand-and-rubber concoction is quickly becoming the leader in the fake-grass field. (Monsanto, alas, is out of the turf business.) The product should last at least 10 years at the six schools, even with soccer and, in some cases, baseball teams using the same surface as the football team.

Wilson Athletic Director Eddie Saah admits he’s giddy at the differences between caring for grass and FieldTurf, which are akin to the differences between caring for normal hair and a toupee. While his old grass field required near-daily watering and weekly cutting during the summer months, the only regular maintenance called for by FieldTurf will be what Engers describes as a monthly mechanical “combing.”

“This is going to save me so much time in mowing, watering, and seeding, and so much money in water,” says Saah, who is himself a Wilson alum. “One game after a big rain, and the field was ruined. That’s not a worry anymore. And we won’t even have to worry about washing the uniforms so much with this stuff.”

But as glad as the AD is, it’s the players who are happiest about the renovations. Walsh says he’s been looking forward to Wilson’s Sept. 14 opener against Eastern while watching his home field’s wholesale renovation all summer. His teammates and classmates are as excited as he is.

“I can’t wait,” says Walsh. “Everybody here can’t wait.”

Well, the kids might have to. Saah says he just found out this week that his field won’t be ready for the Tigers’ opener.

“It looks like we’re going to play that game at Eastern instead,” Saah says. “But I can take that. This is a great step. Things are changing.”