Gil LeBreton

Oh, now the NFL is worried about dangerous turf?

The grounds crew at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium check the turf before Sunday’s NFL preseason game was canceled in Canton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
The grounds crew at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium check the turf before Sunday’s NFL preseason game was canceled in Canton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane) AP

Pardon my muddy shoes, but if playing conditions really mattered to the NFL, Danny White – not that Montana guy – would have been the quarterback of the 1980s.

OK, I’m reaching a bit. Joe Montana became the gold standard for Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.

But the cancellation of the Hall of Fame preseason game last Sunday between the Colts and Packers for so-called dangerous playing conditions in Canton, Ohio, brings back memories of soggy fields and paint-stained dirt.

The 1981 season’s NFC Championship Game, etched in Dallas Cowboys’ infamy, will forever be remembered for Montana’s throw-away heave that resulted in The Catch. The 49ers’ 28-27 victory changed the courses of both NFL franchises for the next decade.

In the days before that January, 1982, game in San Francisco, however, the talk had centered around the deteriorating Candlestick Park turf. Rains, loose sod and a Rolling Stones concert had conspired to make the footing uncertain.

The NFL summoned its legendary "sod god," George Toma, to fix the field as best he could.

As Toma told Gary Pomerantz in the Washington Post, "The first time I came out here was right before the Cleveland game. The Cleveland people said that playing on this field was like playing on a World War II mine field."

The field had been resodded in spring of 1981, but the roots were only a half-inch.

Toma’s solution: cat litter and lots of paint.

As TV replays would later show, on Montana’s historic throw to Dwight Clark, the loose turf made the intended receiver, Freddie Solomon, slip momentarily, which led to hesitation by the Cowboys secondary. Everson Walls was unable to recover and leap with Clark.

A bigger case could be made, though, asking why the game was even played on the Candlestick dirt. Wasn’t Stanford Stadium available, just down the road and not subject to Candlestick’s rain and municipal neglect?

I know. Let it go. Congratulations, 49ers.

Except the same thing happened 13 years later, when the 49ers beat the Barry Switzer-tainted Cowboys 38-28 to advance to Super Bowl XXIX.

Same song and dance. The 49ers had to retreat to Tempe, Ariz., to practice before the game. Bags of cat litter were trucked into Candlestick. Toma was on his hands and knees before the game, painting the grainy surface with a spray can.

One of the first Cowboys on the field for early warmups was quarterback Jason Garrett, who was asked for his assessment of the surface.

"Kitty litter," Garrett reported.

I was at both of those Cowboys-Niners NFC title games in Candlestick, and I remember fans both times pouring onto the field to celebrate. They were scooping up huge chunks of the field to take home as souvenirs.

One other game sticks out prominently. On August 5, 1978, the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles played the first NFL preseason game south of the border.

The game wasn’t played in legendary Aztec Stadium, but instead a city-owned soccer stadium next to a bullfighting ring. One end zone was about two or three yards too short, and the other butted right up to the high fence that encircled the soccer field.

A couple of the yard lines were clearly yard trenches, dug into the field.

In his book, The NFL in the ‘70s, Joe Zagorski quotes Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski about that game:

"It was, without a doubt, one of the worst weekends I’ve ever had in my life. We got to the stadium and we walked about 100 yards through this tunnel that was very dark and very old. On the right we looked down and there were all the bulls for the bull ring next door. You can imagine how it smelled.

"We came out and it was the worst field I’ve ever played on. There were lumps and rocks everywhere."

Lumps and rocks?

The Saints and Eagles, as it turned out, had been canaries. It would be 16 years before the NFL would return to Mexico City for another preseason game.

According to reports, a replacement turf had been installed at the stadium in Canton, and before last Sunday no one there had ever tried to paint the Hall of Fame logo at midfield. When the paint they chose failed to dry in time, some genius decided that heating the painted surface would speed the process.

He must not have realized that the Field Turf surface was laden with thousands and thousands of tiny rubber pellets, which melted and, in effect, produced a rubber parking lot at midfield.

It’s hard to blame the NFL for canceling the game. The risk of injury was obvious. And it was, after all, just an extra preseason game.

But if organizers can play a college basketball game on an aircraft carrier and a baseball game at an Army post, the NFL should be able to play a practice game in a high school stadium.

Funny, though, but the league didn’t use to worry as much about things like shoddy footing and twisted knees. Or concussions, too, for that matter.

I commend the NFL for doing the right thing – but it was 34 years late.

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