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 Fields of Green. Story by Wright Thompson.

 

The future of his business, and of the sports research it does, lies in the answer to that question. Fresenburg and many of his peers around the country are cautiously optimistic that the real thing will eventually trump the fake, as it's done in the past.

"It's almost like a cycle from what I've started to see," says Neal Pate, assistant head groundskeeper for the Cleveland Browns. "It's almost exactly the same thing that happened in the mid to late 1960s, when they introduced Astroturf. ...The next thing that's come along is the FieldTurf, and there are 30 different brands of it now. It is definitely something that is better than Astroturf, [but] it's still kind of a wait-and-see. People are starting to see a few more problems with it than when it came out."

One is the aforementioned heat. Since the synthetic material isn't self-cooling like grass, field temperatures during late summer and early fall can shoot up well into three digits. And athletes don't like those little rubber pellets that take the place of thatch. "Those get in your eyes," Corby Jones says. Other athletes say even the best artificial turfs lack the "give" of grass-covered ground, and thus lead to more injuries. Artificial turf manufacturers dispute this. So far, studies have been inconclusive.

in a world where sport is as much about entertainment as competition, however, such concerns might not matter much anyway. Not when there's a halftime show to put on. For elaborate performances at big games, such as the Super Bowl, synthetic is the only option.

"If we had had natural grass with that Rolling Stones concert, we'd have been wiped out," says legendary grass guru George Toma, the Kansas City native who does all the Super Bowl playing surfaces for the NFL.

The Rolling Stones notwithstanding, Fresenburg and his latest crop of students keep their fingers crossed, speaking out for the value of real over fake. In all likelihood, they say, FieldTurf won't ever eliminate natural grass completely. But what are scientists inventing right at this moment? Is the third generation of synthetic turf being born? Is that the surface that will finish what Astroturf and FieldTurf started?

These are questions for another day. For the moment, Fresenburg is working quietly in the old farmhouse. When he first started, a real family lived here. Now he sets his laptop up in the kitchen, scrolling through data. When he needs inspiration, all he has to do is look around him. There's grass growing out to the horizon in every direction.

       
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Published by the Office of Research.

©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.