Aeration is the key player on practice fields

In the competitive world of the National Football League, where players' salaries can easily reach millions of dollars, protecting your assets is critical.

If a player sustains an injury that prevents him from playing, it can cost the team more than money-it can cost them the game. That's why the St. Louis Rams have adopted a proactive approach to reduce practice-related injuries. By establishing proper turf-management techniques, particularly aeration, on their practice fields, the Rams have realized substantial bottom-line results-not to mention a large measure of appreciation from the players.

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Many stadium fields-including the TWA Dome in St. Louis-have artificial turf, but most practice fields used by NFL teams are built using natural turf. Natural turf offers a host of benefits to players, most notably a softer, more forgiving playing surface that helps limit injuries. Keeping those in top condition can be a real challenge.

Todd Hewitt, equipment manager for the Rams, knows how playing surfaces can affect athletes. Not only has Hewitt purchased and maintained all the equipment used by the team for 22 years, but he spent several years assisting his father, who previously served in that role. As the point person for purchases that total about $750,000 per year, Hewitt is in the unique position of balancing the needs of players and coaches with the business side of the organization.

More than poking holes in the ground Hewitt and others within the St. Louis Rams organization use a fairly straightforward turf-cultivation program to create softer playing surface. Their approach includes watering each of eight zones for 20 minutes each day, depending on weather conditions, and fertilizing once every 2 weeks with high-nitrogen and micro-organic products.

Another factor that has had a substantial impact on reducing player injuries during practice is proper aeration. Since Hewitt's acquisition of a Verti-Drain aeration machine, the team aerates the practice field on a regular basis as part of its practice field turf program. The aerator, made by Redexim-Charterhouse, is a unit that mechanically drives tines into the turf and through the soil, making the surface more absorbent and resistant to compaction.

"To be honest, all I knew about aeration beforehand was that you poked holes in the ground; I didn't really understand the details," says Hewitt. "Because St. Louis gets a fair amount of rain, we run into all sorts of problems. The players were unhappy with saturated practice fields. They couldn't always get onto the fields when they needed to, and when they finally did, there was a great deal of slipping."

In addition to water drainage problems, the weather created serious compaction issues as well, disrupting valuable practice time.

"As soon as you talk about a disruption to practice, the coaches get very concerned," Hewitt says. "They don't want to hear about the problem; they just want it solved."

A field that is either too wet or too compacted poses a threat to players. "When you take a $2 million athlete who can no longer practice, you've got a serious problem," Hewitt says. "If a receiver slips, pulls a groin and is out for six weeks, the whole organization suffers along with the player."

One way to avoid the rain is to move the practice indoors, onto artificial turf. According to Hewitt: "If we go indoors, the team has to play on a harsher surface. I would say most of the players prefer real grass. Many have been playing for eight or nine years and have had injuries before. Real turf is softer and doesn't hurt their joints as much. Our players really needed a break from the constant pounding on artificial turf."

Jeff Robinson, defensive end for the Rams, agrees with Hewitt. Robinson, now in his third year with the Rams, has never had a serious injury but knows full well the potentially devastating effect.

"When the guys are making cuts on the field, there's a great risk of slipping if the ground is too wet," says Robinson. "The guys can fall, too, if the ground is compacted and the turf just comes up in chunks. That can mean groin injuries, hamstring injuries and other problems. I probably notice turf conditions more than other players do because I used to cut grass on a golf course when I was in college. Also, I'm a long-snapper for field goals and punts, so it affects the way my job works if there are clumps of grass that I have to push down first."

Perhaps no one within the Rams organization is more keenly aware of turf that Scott Parker, groundskeeper for the Rams since 1995.

"In clay-based fields, which are common in the Midwest, compaction is a huge problem," Parker reports. "I check with players regularly about the field conditions. When they go out onto a field and their cleats don't dig in, they definitely notice the compaction. It's a lot harder on them."

Making the turf healthier Parker took notice of the clear-cut advantages of mechanical aeration during training camp at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill. Despite heavy rains, the fields held up and practice was able to continue.

"Last year, halfway through the season, we had to re-sod between the hashes because they were worn out," says Parker. "The first time we used the aerator, we went onto the fields the next morning and they were dry and playable. It made a huge difference. Proper aeration opens up the turf and gets oxygen and nutrients down to the roots. When you do this, the turf plants really respond quickly. You can see the difference in less than a week. Cosmetically, the turf even looks healthier."

"Last year at Macomb, we were able to stay on the fields more in spite of the rain," says Parker. "The turf was a lot greener as well and we saw a much healthier root system, with root growth up to about 8 or 9 inches instead of just the 3 or 4 inches they previously recorded. It really brought an end to serious compaction and drainage problems at training camp."

The coaches get involved Parker believes so strongly in the need to mechanically aerate on a regular basis that he approached Hewitt with a purchase request. The decision to purchase aeration equipment quickly became popular with management.

"There were probably eight people who were involved in the decision to buy a new aerator," Hewitt says. "Management knew we had tremendous problems on our practice fields, so they weren't surprised by the request. We involved team administrators and coaches in the decision."

>From the coaches' perspective, buying their own machine was a long-term, >convenient solution to troublesome fields. No longer would the team have >to call up contractors to schedule their aeration in advance.

"With our own unit, we wouldn't have to worry if we needed the machine to aerate at the last minute," reports Parker. "Coaches don't want to hear that they can't practice because I can't get a field aerated on time."

Hewitt adds: "Coaches are a unique animal. They only care about functionality-what works. The end product is that we can use the fields more frequently."

With head coach Dick Vermeil and others firmly behind the effort, Hewitt presented the business case to team management.

"In the long run, we knew it would save us money," says Hewitt. "In the past, we spent $40,000 to re-sod just one field. To purchase a machine that costs less than $20,000 was well worth it. Economically, it made perfect sense, and the people in the front office quickly realized that. Our conservative guess is that it saves us $20,000 to $30,000 a year."

The results of the Rams owning their own aeration equipment have been more than just convenience. "Now all three fields last longer and we get more use out of them," Hewitt says. "We don't lose as many players to slipping injuries and it's easier on our equipment because items like shoes last longer."

Parker's turf management program is simple but effective. It includes application of nutrients, reseeding, overseeding and aerating. "It's made a tremendous difference. Our fields in November look as good as they did in September. I use it year-round and increase my use in June, July and August," says Parker.

"Regular aeration really does help keep our players on the field," Hewitt concludes. "It helps the players and coaches get the best out of weekly practice time on the fields so they can do their best on Sundays."

Philip Threadgold is executive vice president of Redexim-Charterhouse, and is a co-founder of Charterhouse Turf Machinery Ltd.

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