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Science of growing turf at Bison football practice fields has a shelf life

The artificial turf and natural grass surfaces at the North Dakota State University football practice facility in north Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service1 / 5
The artificial turf surface at the North Dakota State University football practice facility in north Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service2 / 5
The natural grass field at the North Dakota State University football practice facility in north Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service3 / 5
The natural grass field at the North Dakota State University football practice facility in north Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service4 / 5
The artificial turf surface at the North Dakota State University football practice facility in north Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service5 / 5

FARGO—North Dakota State begins football practice next week, and when the Bison take their first steps onto the practice field, they'll find a well-manicured lawn that is as plush as anything in the city.

For 10 years, Tom Drietz has operated behind the scenes in taking care of it and that's the way he likes it. He's the sports turf manager for the school.

"Obviously it's part of the game but you don't want to be the main focus," he said. "It's like a ball taking a bad hop in baseball or softball, it's just as bad as an umpire missing a call. In my way of looking at it, you're often blamed for things but don't get the credit and that's all right. It comes with the territory."

That territory may be changing in the near future. NDSU has announced plans to fundraise and then build a $37-million indoor practice facility, which would get rid of the two current grass practice fields and replace them with artificial turf. There is no timeline on that privately-funded project.

So instead of preparing the Bison to practice on grass, Drietz and his crew will be more concerned with clearing the artificial turf of debris, fixing seams, brushing turf fibers and addressing the infill.

"It's definitely not maintenance-free like some of the turf companies lead you to believe," Drietz said, "but it's not nearly as much of a process as a natural turf field, either."

The 34-year-old Drietz is an NDSU graduate. He spent one year as the head groundskeeper for a minor league baseball team in Visalia, Calif. He's currently halfway through his masters degree at NDSU in plant sciences.

So when NDSU removes its grass practice fields in favor of turf, he said he'll miss the yearly challenge of it all. And that will be about it for the Drietz and natural grass sports fields. Ellig Sports Complex softball stadium is being turfed this week and the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks have a primary grounds crew for baseball-playing and natural grass Newman Outdoor Field. Dreitz said he'll occasionally help out at Newman.

"This is what I went to school for," he said. "It's what I've done for the past 10 to 12 years. I'm going to miss growing the grass on the football fields, it's kind of been my main job here."

On the flip side, he understands the switch to turf. Every program in the Missouri Valley Football Conference has artificial turf, with South Dakota State the last to make the switch. The last time the Bison played a regular season game on grass was at SDSU in 2015.

About the only time they play on grass these days is if they make the FCS national title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

"If the Bison didn't go to Frisco every year, they wouldn't even play on grass," Drietz said. "I see the reasoning for not wanting to practice too much on grass. I'm kind of surprised how many high schools are finding the funding to go to artificial turf."

The next scheduled game on grass is against Drake University (Iowa) in the 2019 season opener at Target Field in Minneapolis. After that, it may not be until 2024 when NDSU plays at Colorado and its natural-grass Folsom Field.

Getting NDSU's practice field up to first-class speed is a multi-month project, Drietz said. He and his crew are constantly tweaking fertilizer and aerification programs, he said.

"It basically takes from as soon as the snow melts until the snow flies again," he said. "We take diligent notes on what works and what's best for it."

Once practice starts next week, however, the field will take a beating. Football is played by big, powerful college athletes, some of whom weigh over 300 pounds. When the Bison break down into position groups, they head to their respective area of the practice complex to work on drills and Drietz said there's no question which position is hardest on the grass.

The defensive linemen win that award, so to speak.

"Those guys are not only big but they're the ones twisting and turning the most," Drietz said. "They're trying to get around the big offensive linemen so they're the ones that really rip up the turf."

Jeff Kolpack

Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com. On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.

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