Henrico County plays its first high school football game on synthetic turf
27 August 2018
Loren Johnson grew up in South Florida, just outside Miami. The kids didn’t have a field nearby to play football, so they played pickup games in the street. And two-hand touch wasn’t part of their rule book — the kids played tackle football.
Some kids would run toward the strip of grass boarding the sidewalk if they were about to get tackled so they’d have a softer surface to land on. Other kids would say, “If you don’t want to get tackled in the street, don’t get tackled.”
Johnson is Highland Springs’ football coach now, and to him, it doesn’t really matter where you’re playing football, whether it’s grass, synthetic turf or asphalt.
His football team played in the first high school game in Henrico County played on synthetic turf. The Springers won it by a wide margin, defeating the home team, Hermitage, 67-0.
In general, Highland Springs linebacker Christian White doesn’t like playing on an artificial surface. He’s played on one before — Highland Springs won its past two state titles on Hampton University’s turf. White is a linebacker, which means he’s constantly making tackles and falling down. Turf scratches the skin harder than grass, he said.
“My elbows are on fire,” he said after the game.
The Springers prepared by bring extra elbow pads, knee pads and turf tape.
“It’s not as forgiving as grass is,” Johnson said.
But Highland Springs defensive back Tremayne Talbert said this field was softer than other turf fields on which he’s played. He called the field slippery, though he seemed to keep his feet under him throughout the game playing defense and returning punts. He wasn’t too scratched up, he said.
Unlike other artificial fields, the ones at Henrico schools don’t have rubber between the blades of grass. Rubber-filled fields came under scrutiny after a 2014 NBC News report cited a possible link between the rubber and blood cancer.
Instead, the Henrico County fields contain an infill made of cork and sand. The Highland Springs team brought extra eye wash in case the pellets splashed into a player’s face.
The Springers got on the field early Friday to get a feel for the surface and to get a sense as to how the ball would bounce.
Late in the game, Hermitage attempted a punt and tried to send the ball out of bounds. The ball bounced near the Highland Springs sideline, but instead of going out, it made a 90-degree turn and stayed in play. Springers punt returner Laquan Veney picked the ball up, raced down the sideline and was tackled at the 8-yard line, returning the punt more than 40 yards.
Coaches will tell you that players can run faster on synthetic turf, in part because there are no divots or lumps and the surface is flat, as opposed to an arced grass field.
The biggest advantage to turf is its durability. It drains quickly and is safe to use in the rain. After months of use, it doesn’t need an offseason to recover. The county plans to use the fields to host tournaments when they’re not being used by high school teams.
Hermitage, Douglas Freeman and Varina have their new fields already, and the other six county schools will get them in the next two years. Henrico, Highland Springs and J.R. Tucker are scheduled to get their fields replaced in 2019, and Glen Allen, Deep Run and Mills Godwin will receive theirs in 2020.
Friday’s game came about a year and 10 months after Henrico voters approved an $87.1 million bond referendum for recreation and parks improvements that set the plan in motion. Of the $87.1 millions, $12.5 million was devoted to the installation of the nine fields.
Installing turf fields at high school stadiums has become a growing trend. Fairfax County and Prince George’s County in Maryland already passed resolutions to convert all their high school football fields to synthetic turf.
In Richmond, St. Christopher’s, Collegiate and Huguenot have them, too. But Hanover and Chesterfield Counties have not announced plans to follow suit.