A Cut Above : Growing Grass for Indoors During World Cup Has Been Labor of Love, but Big Test Is Today


John N. (Trey) Rogers hitched up his khaki pants, causing his green and white striped Michigan State polo shirt to bunch at the waist. He jammed his hands into his pockets and rocked on the run-over heels of his sneakers.

Off to the side in the Silverdome, a group of young men wearing jeans and T-shirts looked on. They were laughing. Rogers was laughing, too. Rogers and his research staff are a happy bunch of agronomists these days. And Rogers knows that, for an assistant professor of crop and soil science, this is as good as it gets.

Rogers has been in demand this week, explaining to international media representatives how he and his crew have coaxed grass to do what, if left to nature’s ways, it would never do. They have devised a way to grow grass indoors.


Today in the Silverdome, the national soccer teams of Germany and England will play the final game of the U.S. Cup ’93 on the most-scrutinized 14,000 square feet of grass in history. Also the most expensive. The German and English players will run freely, kick up divots and generally trash a lawn that cost $1.5 million to develop.

Both teams practiced on the field Friday.

“The pitch is perfect,” said England’s John Barnes, using the soccer term for field. “(But) you look up and expect to see the sky and the sun.”

Today will be the first time an international soccer match has been played indoors on natural grass. But this same greensward will, 10 days from now, be packed up and returned to its home in the Silverdome parking lot.

There the “field” will live, in its 1,850 steel hexagons, 88 triangles and 60 trapezoid containers. It will be cared for during the winter, when it will lie dormant and probably turn brown. It will be nurtured in the spring, when fertilizer and growth regulators will reawaken its groggy blades.

Then, in May or June of next year, the modules will be moved by forklift back onto the floor of the Silverdome, where on June 18 it will become the field of dreams for the U.S. national soccer team, which will play its first match of the 1994 World Cup on it.

Breaking with tradition, one of soccer’s most important games will be played indoors.

For this, Rogers is understandably proud. Attempts have been made before to sustain natural grass indoors, especially as statistics continue to document injuries associated with artificial turf.


The Houston Astrodome, the first of the domed stadiums, started with natural grass, its clear glass roof letting in the full spectrum of light. But athletes complained that the glare made it difficult to see baseballs and footballs. That failed experiment begot AstroTurf, now the stuff of indoor stadiums--and patios and porches--across the country.

Because today’s domed stadiums block most of the sun’s light--necessary for growing grass--the expensive experiments have not worked. The Silverdome lets in only about 10% of the light spectrum, so more than 200,000 watts of artificial light shine on the grass to keep it alive.

It has been a labor of love for Rogers, who nevertheless concedes that the project has been taxing for all involved.

“When they were going to make the announcement if Detroit got the (World Cup) bid, I told my wife I was heading out to Pontiac,” Rogers said in a slow Arkansas drawl. “She said, ‘When are you coming back?’ I said, ‘Either two hours or two years.’ ”

Detroit got the bid, and Michigan State won the right to provide the turf.

Much of the specific formula for creating the sod is as closely guarded as the field itself, which has had a 24-hour police guard since it arrived April 20. Rogers does reveal that the grass is 65% Kentucky bluegrass, which recovers quickly from damage, and 35% perennial ryegrass, selected for its durability.

To find the right combination of grass types and the proper soil mixture, the MSU scientists built what they called, “the Silverdome West.” This was a 6,500-square-foot Quonset hut-incubator that had as its roof the same kind of fiberglass used at the Silverdome.


Rogers and his team of researchers spent months locked in the dome, growing different types of grass in 4 x 4-foot wooden boxes. Each box was exposed to different conditions of light, moisture and fertilizer.

Many grasses were lost in the testing. The hardiest specimens were subjected to the ultimate test. Members of Michigan State’s men’s and women’s soccer teams were called in to test a patchwork field of assorted grasses.

“Oh, they were rough on it,” Rogers said, wincing at the memory. “They ran, they cut, they twisted and jumped on it.”

MSU scientists measured everything. They even subjected the tiny plots of grass to the Clegg test, which calls for someone to jump up and down on the sod to measure its relative hardness or give.

With the meticulous testing, it was difficult to determine whether the scientists or the grass samples were more exhausted.

But by last fall, Rogers had selected the one. Last November, Pacific Sod Co. planted the grass in an organic mulch on plastic sheeting in a field in Camarillo, Calif. The young grass thrived.


By mid-April the field was cut into rectangles and loaded into refrigerated trucks for the 2,200-mile trip to Michigan.

And then, this one-of-a-kind field, which had survived the most arduous testing, nearly died at the hands of Sam Shively and Jim Ross.

They drove the trucks.

On one of their several trips, Ross was driving when he missed an entrance ramp near Kingman, Ariz., ran off the road and nearly rolled the 48-foot tractor-trailer.

“I was shaking in my boots,” Shively said.

Never mind the damage to the truck or the driver, or that had that load of grass been destroyed, there would have been no time to grow more.

Think of Rogers and his agronomy team. What of the scientists and their beloved, oh-so-carefully nurtured grass? Would the grief have killed them, too?