SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- When the 49ers were getting ready to open their new $1.3 billion stadium, coach Jim Harbaugh compared the team's new field to the fairways at the famed golf course where the Masters tournament is played. The team and its partners billed the new grass as a super-resistant strain capable of withstanding the pounding of 300-pound linemen, saying divots would be "virtually nonexistent."
But as it turns out, the $1.4 million playing field installed four months ago could not even withstand its first week of NFL football.
The team ripped up a 100-yard stretch of grass running down the middle of the field and began installing a new playing surface on Thursday, a day after Harbaugh cut short a public practice at the stadium, disappointing 10,000 fans in attendance.
The field was beat up -- with some players falling Wednesday -- following the Niners first game at the stadium last Sunday, a preseason exhibition loss against the Denver Broncos. The Niners apologized to fans who made the trip to Wednesday's training camp session and said the field would be ready for Sunday's preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, but declined to comment further.
"One game shouldn't have caused it to fall apart," said Kevin Morris, executive director of the National Turf Grass Evaluation Program, a leading nonprofit that tests grasses. "It's a problem for the team for sure."
The thick-cut sod the team is installing is meant as a temporary fix. It is used occasionally at other sports stadiums that are beat up at the end of a season, or following a concert. But it cannot generate the deep roots needed for the field to withstand a beating long term.
It's unclear how the team will sod the field for its regular-season opener, a Sept. 14 primetime game against the Chicago Bears on national TV, or whether the stadium's sand base contributed to the grass issues.
It's not the first problem with the field. Last month, trucks carrying heavy equipment for a black-tie VIP gala featuring a John Legend concert damaged part of the area near the south end zone. At the time, Niners executives brushed off the damage and said it would be fixed quickly. But this week, more than a month after the concert, there was still a large brown stain behind and inside part of the end zone.
On Wednesday, the third and final free Levi's Stadium practice was called off 45 minutes in, after wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington and several other players slipped and created new divots, creating injury scares for players with multi-million dollar contracts. Coaches had been digging into the divots that had been replaced on the field with patches of sod, and team executives huddled on the field to examine its condition, which some fans weren't exactly impressed with.
"Once we sat down in our seats, I kind of chuckled -- look at this great stadium, and the money spent, and look how crappy the field is," said Rick Randall, 48, of Manteca, who was at Wednesday's practice. "I was kind of expecting nice, green lush grass. It didn't look much better than Candlestick."
The team gave Wednesday's fans vouchers to the stadium museum and finished practice at its training facility next door.
The conditions were in stark contrast to the portrait painted by officials when they installed the 2.5-acre field in April, by which time it had already been growing in the Central Valley for 18 months.
"You grab this grass and try to tear it -- it's tough stuff. It doesn't pull apart," Greg Dunn, a sales manager for turf grower West Coast Turf, said in April. "Divots should be almost non-existent in this stadium." The team's head groundskeeper, Matt Greiner, said at the time that the fast recovery rate was what prompted the team to choose the sod, called Bandera Bermuda.
Dunn said he was busy Thursday and referred calls to a colleague, who did not immediately return requests for comment. The 49ers declined to provide access to the publicly-owned stadium or answer questions on Thursday, though TV news choppers showed the sod ripped out in the morning. The team also took down the stadium's live-cam for the first time.
The 49ers are the first NFL team to use the Bandera Bermuda strain for a full season, though the Oakland Raiders installed it after the A's season ended last year.
The question now becomes whether the 49ers will be able to have the field ready for Sunday's preseason game, which the 49ers insist will be the case.
"It's kind of concerning that they spend $1.4 million on this field and it's already not good," said Allen Tang, 37, of Santa Clara, who was also at the practice. "To me it seems kind of hard to believe they can fix something so fast, but I'm not an expert on this."
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