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The Bucs' new blades

The turf has been carefully planted and tended, with every weed pulled by hand.

By JEANNE MALMGREN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 1998


When the Buccaneers sprint onto the field for their first game in Raymond James Stadium, their cleats will bite into a Bermuda carpet four months in the making.

The project began in May, when 2,000 bushels of grass sprigs were planted in the dirt bowl of the new stadium. Since then, the 2-acre field has been pampered like a princess.

Millions of gallons of water. Hundreds of hours spent mowing, spreading fertilizer, spraying pesticide. Every weed pulled by hand.

"The field's going to be excellent for opening day," predicted Jim Daisey of Metrex, the Clearwater site contractor at the stadium.


photo
The Bucs' new home turf has sprung from sprigs.
[Times photo: Jim Stem]
For years, Tampa Bay has had what many people rated the best playing surface in the NFL. The new stadium's grass would have to be as good or better. So they decided to sprig rather than sod.

Most athletic fields are created in a hurry, by rolling out huge strips of turf. That's the sodding method. It's instant, but expensive.

Because the sports authority had several months to grow a field, they opted for sprigging, a slower method in which individual grass "plants" are installed and allowed to spread.

The sprigs weren't a pretty sight at first.

"It looked like dead grass or hay," said Daisey.

Overseeing the 12-week "grow-in" period was agronomist Dan Morgan.

Morgan's company, Turf Keepers, has installed athletic fields at several Hillsborough County high schools and consults at golf courses. For the new stadium, Morgan chose Tifway 419 hybrid Bermuda, a variety used for golf course fairways and sports complexes.

"It's so durable, it's like wire," Morgan said.

It had better be tough. With the University of South Florida also hosting home games there, the field will be used twice some weekends.

"When you have the Bulls and the Bucs playing back-to-back games, Saturday and then Sunday, it's going to be hard on the grass," Morgan said.

Damaged spots will be repaired with sod from the Pursley turf farm in Palmetto.

The drainage system in Raymond James Stadium features a layer of pea gravel beneath the turf and powerful pumps to send excess water into underground retention vaults. The system can remove 250,000 gallons of water (almost four inches of rain) from the field in an hour. If you wonder why that's important, think back to the Hall of Fame Bowl two years ago, when a heavy downpour in the old sombrero stadium turned the Auburn-Michigan game into a mudbath.

In contrast, the new field already passed muster during a July thunderstorm.

"We had five inches of rain one afternoon and there was no standing water on the field," Daisey said. "Basically, it's a two-acre sponge."

When it doesn't rain, the field is irrigated by an army of Toro sprinkler heads. On game days, small round divots will be pressed over each sprinkler head to create a level playing surface.

In mid-July the grass was verticut, a tough-love technique in which a special mower slices into the roots to promote new growth.

"It looks like you've killed the field," said Daisey. "But it greens right back up."

After its severe haircut, the turf received a top-dressing of processed sewer sludge, something like the nutrient-rich Milorganite used by home gardeners.

"It smelled like a barnyard," said Daisey.

Even though the turf's grow-in period ended in mid-August, primping will continue right up to Michael Husted's opening kick.

"I want a great field," said Morgan.

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