Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Behind The Rim: A career of artificial surface

I never liked Astroturf.

Nylon fibers paint a chartreuse canvas all over America. It’s no longer a country of amber grain or purple dinosaurs, so my interest isn’t planted on the big screen or in honest labor. I watch the artificial field now, with its yard lines and foul lines, where our players dance on all the stage or the parquet floor.

Some of them even injure their knees.

Coaches say you plant your feet. As far as I know, no one ever tried to plant any grain on artificial turf. An occasional running back, maybe, but the feet come first.

I first touched Astroturf when I was a child on a field trip to the Kingdome, that old parking structure where the Mariners used to play. The field felt like the rough golf-range doormat at my grandma’s house.

I think the bottoms of my Keds were bleeding.

When Seattle demolished the Kingdome in 2000, the stadium made my list of reasons to love sports. It grated the eyes to look at and smelled like stale hotdogs and peanuts instead of freshly cut grass or warning-track earth. But the Kingdome was host to a bunch of loveable losers, a relic that would someday share the fate of the wishbone — colossal, uncomfortable domed stadiums were every owner’s dream in the mid-’70s — just another branch on the evolutionary ladder of The Game.

Astroturf, presumably, will be gone soon too. At the behest of purist fans and medical trainers everywhere, teams are tearing up even the most beloved artificial surfaces in favor of the softer and more aesthetic real thing. Well, some people are cheating and placing the pseudo-antidote “FieldTurf,” which isn’t quite grass but is at least anchored in a shock-absorbent surface.

That was to be the direction for Wisconsin. The athletic department here planned on tearing up the cement underbelly of Camp Randall, as soon as the state budget could afford it, and reinstalling the same plastic/sand/rubber concoction all of Pat Richter’s colleagues must have been raving about at last summer’s AD convention.

A year earlier wouldn’t have been too soon for Lee Evans.

Evans eerily crumpled his left knee during last month’s spring football game. He landed awkwardly on the artificial surface, only to be wheeled off the diabolical green villain and onto a place in my list.

Pure chance led me to become The Badger Herald’s unofficial, de facto Lee Evans beat writer this year. Pure bad luck tied him to me even more closely. Evans, too, reminds me why I love The Game.

Several conversations with Evans in the past year led me to believe he is a singularly genuine person. He was not just a fantastic player; being anything less than that, or abandoning his teammates early, or leaving the college life he relishes, wouldn’t be true to himself. He wants the ball, not just to put up 1,500 yards but because he wants the ball in his hands.

Not even nylon (which he calls a blessing and a curse) can catch Lee Evans, usually. His history on artificial surfaces was hardly negative. He practically invented himself in 2000 when he caught a game-winning floater from Jim Sorgi on the turf in East Lansing (Michigan State plans to install FieldTurf before next season).

Matt Barnes missed the photo op because he was kneeling on the dastardly false surface changing his film. Luckily, Manu Raju stepped in with the save for the Herald and captured a blurry front-page photo. The streak was Evans scoring.

Maybe Astroturf didn’t cause his injury, but it wouldn’t have been the first time if it did. The surface is tractable enough that planted feet get stuck, while the momentum of colliding bodies continues. It even rears its disgusting head in the non-contact arena. Andre Dawson might still be playing if not for his years on Montreal’s asphaltish Stade Olympique.

Artificial grass has torn up so many good knees and ankles, its prickly graveyard could probably field a whole team of Hall-of-Famers — and that’s just in two sports.

Basketball is trickier. They don’t call it “the hardwood” for nothing.

The shoes are stickier, the cuts sharper, the knees less protected. But the motion is more propulsive. A dunker catapults himself off the wood, while a defensive back needs to dig into the earth. When there is no give, the turf just takes. It’s got a knapsack full of ligaments and it’s still hungry.
Still, roundball deserves a spot on my list. Andy Bitter and the unseen future of HoopsAmerica have earned it. Besides, they don’t call it Behind The Rim for nothing, either.

I once saw an Adidas advertisement where a kid sat dejectedly on the bench. He never played. Four frames of him looking determined, bored, helpless and angry.

On the next page, he was leaping in celebration as a teammate in the foreground hit a game-winning jumper.

Basketball holds court, so to speak, over the field of major athletics. It remains individually, helmetlessly expressive, which engenders it to the riotous margins of culture, but it can’t help but be so pure and graceful and simple.

Adidas’ fictional player was astonishingly victorious, even though he never had a chance to get in the game.

Lee Evans wants to play, and that was taken away from him — precisely the tragic flaw that makes sports so encompassingly human. Winning is possible, losing is inevitable. The Kingdome lost, eventually.

Evans is still in the struggle.

But winning is still the joyous reward. The other side of the tunnel. The sweet end. And the fruits of labor only make the dessert better.

So the artificial surfaces remain, and we fill them with spectacular wars and honorable soldiers. We get rugburn and turf toe, concussions and ruptured knees, but every once in a while we make that diving catch and bedamn that Astroturf.

* * *

When I showed up for my first sports writers’ meeting two years ago, I should have known any expectations I had then instantly cancelled out whatever I could have predicted.

Naturally, my Badger Herald path takes another unexpected course next. I may never end up finagling my way into Johnny Daly’s North Carolina-Duke game, but I’d rather not limit my options.

I’ll spare the readers Motzko’s meandering, but I owe her a phone bill’s worth of gratitude. Ben and Lee: you did a fine job of not turning out like me, so the campus is in your hands.

There’s no punch line; I’m just celebrating in the final frame.

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