Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Poly Turf

(Top) The Orange Bowl field during Super Bowl X in 1976. (Middle) Orange Bowl field during Super Bowl V in 1971 and (Bottom)An overhead view of the Orange Bowl during the early 1970s

Former major league baseball player Dick Allen once said of his disgust with artificial turf, "If a horse won't eat it, I don't want to play on it." Hated by athletes, but used as a then cost-cutting maintainance measure, artificial turf became a staple at outdoor sports stadiums around the nation in the 1970s. The Orange Bowl was among the first in this trend. In 1970, the City of Miami decided to replace the natural grass field of the Orange Bowl with a form of artificial grass known as Poly-Turf. From the 1970 season through Super Bowl X in January of 1976, Poly Turf covered the Orange Bowl field.

Poly-Turf was manufactured by the company American Biltrite. It was one of three different types of artificial grass used in stadiums at the time, along with Tartan Turf and Astro Turf. When Poly-Turf was installed at the Orange Bowl, its impact on the game was huge. The playing surface became faster enabling running backs and receivers to make quicker cuts.

"When I first got on it, I felt superfast," said former Miami Dolphin running back Jim Kiick. "But then I started thinking, what do the fast guys feel like?"

The Miami Dolphins quickly used Poly Turf to its advantage. Players like receiver Paul Warfield and running back Mercury Morris thrived on the surface. Both players were quick on any surface. But on Poly Turf, they were almost impossible for defenses to contain. Another characteristic of Poly-Turf was its ability to absorb heat. At times playing conditions became unbearably hot.

"It was difficult. It was hard because the heat reflected off the artificial turf," Kiick said. "There were times when the temperatures were 130 degrees on the field."

While the Dolphins were used to playing and practicing in the hot climate of South Florida, visiting teams often wilted on the Poly-Turf. From 1971 through 1974, the Dolphins won 31 consecutive games at the Orange Bowl, including three consecutive AFC titles from 71-73 and back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1972 and 1973. It may not be a coincidence that the glory years of the Dolphin franchise corresponded with the Poly-Turf years.

On January 17,1971, the Orange Bowl hosted Super Bowl V between the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Colts. It was the first Super Bowl played on artificial turf. Poly Turf continued to cover the Orange Bowl playing field until the beginning of 1976. Super Bowl X would be the last football game played on the fake grass.

As the years went by, it became apparent Poly-Turf was becoming a hinderance rather than an advantage. The hard surface led to an increased number of leg, ankle and knee injuries. The turf began to deteriorate over time and many players claimed they would trip over the seams of the field. The turf began to discolor from green to blue due to the harsh UV intensity of the Miami sun. It had run its course.

Natural grass returned the Orange Bowl for the 1976 season and remained there until the end of the stadium in 2008. But while the Dolphins enjoyed unrivaled success on the hard, plastic surface, the legacy of Poly-Turf remains mostly negative. It only proved that sometimes technology can never replace something created by Mother Nature.


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ryan.altizer said...

Here's a good question that I cannot seem to find the answer to: what happened to the polyturf after they took it up? Is any still floating around in collector's circles?

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scarlet reynolds said...

There is a very wide range of Synthetic tennis courts grass products on the market now, tailored for various different sports from bowls to equestrianism. Of course natural turf is managed in countless different ways specifically for the sports played on them and, likewise, synthetic turf has been developed with the various qualities required by different sports.

Gazzoo said...

re ryan:

The Orange Bowl Poly Turf was cut up and sold as collector's items...I actually have (somewhere) a small 2" X 2" piece...

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