Cameron Mattison tackles Marcus Whitfield during a scrimmage Wednesday at grassy Carter Field, which was converted into a practice-ready surface in time for Toledo’s 2013 fall camp. BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT
In the 2012 season, the University of Toledo’s coaching staff felt like it needed to install a turnstile to keep track of all the team’s high ankle sprains.
Matt Campbell, then in his first year as head coach, was frustrated with the amount of time his key players missed with sprains, so much so that he began looking for a cause.
“I was looking for an answer other than, ‘This is the trend,’ ” Campbell said.
A growing hypothesis in the football community was the spread of artificial turf. AstroTurf proliferated and eventually fell out of favor, giving way to FieldTurf, which the Glass Bowl adopted before the 2008 season.
FieldTurf, a synthetic grass made of rubber and silica sand, has numerous benefits, especially for midsized athletics departments like UT’s. After its installation, it requires hardly any maintenance.
Harsh Midwestern winters don’t kill it, and rain doesn’t drown it, and it comes with a warranty that lasts nearly a decade, in some cases.
Every school in the Mid-American conference plays its home games on artificial turf; the Rockets will play only one game this season on natural grass, an out-of-conference game at Iowa State.
When Campbell and the Rockets’ staff began seeking out research, they found a pair of interesting studies.
An NCAA-financed study found that anterior cruciate ligament injuries were more common on artificial grass than regular grass.
An NFL-backed study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, was more critical: Knee and ankle sprains were 22 percent more common on FieldTurf, and ACL sprains shot up 67 percent.
A FieldTurf-financed study, conveniently, found no discrepancy between the two.
Campbell huddled with UT’s grounds crew, which converted natural grass Carter Field into a practice-ready surface in time for 2013 fall camp.
The training staff began strictly enforcing a rule that mandates all UT players must be taped or braced before practicing, and communication among strength coaches, trainers, and the coaching staff is constant.
Coincidence or not, sprains and ligament tears went down for the Rockets last season.
“We had almost three-fourths of a reduction [in sprains] last year,” Campbell said. “Now is that a fluke deal or is not? I don't know, but I know we felt really good about our plan last year and really felt the reduction of those injuries for our football team was huge.”
Head football athletic trainer John Walters, in his fourth year at Toledo, said the amount of time UT players missed because of leg injuries decreased in 2013.
As fall camp concluded Friday, Toledo’s first team nearly was at full health.
“I know the amount of time lost to those types of injuries has decreased quite a bit,” Walters said. “Right now, we seem to be seeing the benefits of going [to grass].”
Walters laughed about the irony of preventative medicine as it relates to football. As long as football is a contact sport, no matter what surface houses the action, the players will need to be patched up every so often. But even small changes, like UT walking a 100 or so yards away to practice on grass, can make a difference.
“It’s still football,” Walters said. “There are still going to be injuries. There’s nothing that’s 100 percent preventable, just due to the nature of the sport. If these is, we’re going to be looking for it — and hopefully finding a way to implement it.”