Forgetting Our Roots | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Forgetting Our Roots

Heinz Field is muddy ... but it's the fans who are getting soft

I don't live in the lawn-obsessed suburbs or a college dorm with a bong-wielding slacker, but everywhere I go, grass is all anybody talks about. Ever since the Nov. 26 Monday-night game against the Dolphins, you can't swing a Terrible Towel without hitting a nerve about Heinz Field and its much-maligned turf.

The uproar led me to do a little digging, as it were, about grass. According to the Kew Index of World Grass Species, there are anywhere from 9,000 to 10,000 species of grass. Some of them have been around for a long time, at least 55 million years. Which means that, in some form or another, grass has been around even longer than the WPIAL.

From the Serengeti Plains in Africa to the Mongolian Plateau in Asia and the Great Plains of North America, grass provides the basis of many food webs. These tenacious and life-giving organisms provide range for livestock, hunting grounds for predators and a soft place to walk barefoot.

Plus, about 10 times a year in Pittsburgh, two professional football teams suit up to play on it. Or at least on some soil painted green.

I don't mean to joke about the grave matter of the Heinz Field turf. I'm sure Ricky Williams, for one, is not laughing about the irony that -- once again -- bad grass has played at least a small part in prematurely ending yet another of his NFL campaigns.

I mean, this is serious business -- the multibillion dollar business of the NFL. Outside of college boosters and Red Sox fans, there may not be more humorless sports fans than the devotees of professional football. And the best evidence for that can be found right here in Pittsburgh: the belief that football should be played in some hermetically sealed, pristine vacuum -- far away from weather conditions, human error and existential angst.

Pittsburgh football has long had a deserved reputation for being tough. We play and cheer in crappy weather. This is the birthplace of guys like Ditka and Unitas, the home of a franchise cultivated by the rugged mug of the Chief. And even though it's no longer an accurate reflection of the economy, we've always worked that "blue-collar" football thing.

Yet when fans are forced to watch a game that really is blue-collar -- a low-scoring, mud-splattered war of attrition -- everybody starts screaming.

Assuming player safety is not jeopardized (at least no more than it is ordinarily jeopardized when skills players are getting whomped by 300-pound behemoths), what's the big deal?

After one game, all those old platitudes about Heinz Field got tossed out the window. So much for the beauty of playing on natural surfaces, the economy of incorporating the University of Pittsburgh into a municipally funded facility, and the virtue of giving high school kids the chance of a lifetime to play on the same field where James Farrior plays. It's all tossed aside the minute that the now-battered surface impedes Willie Parker from getting 100 yards. In a game the Steelers won anyway.

Maybe it's a sign of modernity, a sign that the ratings-driven, West-Coast approach to football has taken hold even here. Even in Pittsburgh, high-scoring is better than low-scoring. Flash is better than smash. Slogging it out in the trenches is so 20th century.

So why did we leave behind the Astroturf of Three Rivers? Hell, let's go a step further. Let's just play all the games in a protective bubble. What do they call those? Yeah. Domes. Climate-controlled, lifeless domes. Like the ones sheltering those fans we scoff at in places like Indianapolis and Atlanta.

When did I move? What happened to the city whose motto was "Because we've always done it that way"?

If grass can survive millions of years, provide the foundation for entire ecosystems, and regenerate after natural and man-made disasters alike, you'd think we could survive a sloppy football game played on it once in awhile.