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After pondering change, Steelers staying with grass field

PITTSBURGH -- The Heinz Field maintenance crew won't be
throwing away those "Keep Off The Grass" signs after all.

The Pittsburgh Steelers gave into their players' wishes and will
keep their grass field, though it may not necessarily be the field
that is currently in place.

While the Heinz Field surface is regularly rated by NFL players
as one of the league's worst, a large number of Steelers players
lobbied the team to keep the grass because they are convinced it
reduces injuries.

"The majority of our players have told us that they prefer
natural grass to any artificial surface," Steelers president Art
Rooney II said in a statement issued Monday. "Grass is also the
preference of our coaches and athletic staff. We discussed this
with the University of Pittsburgh to make sure everyone is
comfortable moving forward."

Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson also said the school
favored grass. Pitt also plays its home games at Heinz Field, which
opened in 2001.

"We have had in-depth conversations about the playing surface
at Heinz Field since the completion of the season," Pederson said.
"After the review, we all agreed that we are committed to a
natural grass surface. We appreciate the great job the staff at
Heinz Field has done to have the field ready for our games."

The Steelers currently use a grass surface called DD GrassMaster
that has reinforcing strands of artificial fibers interwoven with
natural grass. The team has not said if it will keep that surface
or put down a different type of grass.

The Steelers received considerable criticism after a newly
installed layer of sod became swamped by unseasonably heavy rain
during their Nov. 26 game against Miami. There was standing water
several inches deep, resulting in a nearly unplayable surface.

Both offenses stalled nearly the entire game, and the Steelers
scored the only points on Jeff Reed's 24-yard field goal with 17
seconds remaining -- the first time in 64 years an NFL game went
that long without any points.

After that game, the Steelers said they would study installing
an artificial surface for the 2008 season. The stadium is used for
an average of 22 games per year, including all home games by the
Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh and at least five high
school games.

However, Steelers running back Willie Parker -- the NFL's leading
rusher at the time -- broke his right leg while cutting on
artificial turf Dec. 20 in St. Louis.

Without Parker, the Steelers had almost no running game while
losing their final regular-season game to Baltimore and their only
playoff game, a last-minute 31-29 home-field loss to Jacksonville.

That injury may have swayed some in the Steelers' front office
who were beginning to become convinced that, because of the heavy
pounding the field takes each season, that switching to artificial
turf would create a more uniform surface. It also would allow more
non-football events to be held there each season.

But in a postseason interview with The Associated Press on Jan.
7, Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said the NFL was pleased with the
grass surface for the playoff game.

"I think the grass held up really good," Rooney said.

Part of the Steelers' turf problems this past season resulted
from rain or snow falling before or during each of their final four
games.

After five high school and college games were played at Heinz
Field in a 30-hour period Nov. 23-24, $150,000 worth of new sod was
laid atop the permanent grass field within hours before the
Dolphins-Steelers game.

But the new grass became inundated when 1½ inches of rain fell
before and during the Dolphins game, and the field didn't drain as
usual because there were two layers of sod -- rather than the usual
single layer -- above the drainage system.

There was heavy rain again the following week for the
Bengals-Steelers game, but the new sod held up much better. The
field was criticized again by some Jacksonville players after about
a half-inch of snow fell during the Jaguars' 29-22 regular-season
win at Heinz Field on Dec. 16.

"That's a lawsuit waiting to happen," Jaguars running back
Fred Taylor said.

However, once the field finally dried out during a two-week gap
without games, conditions were much better for Jacksonville's
return visit on Jan. 5, although light rain fell during that
playoff game.