Football field technology has come a billion yards since Karl Mecklenburg roamed the gridiron as a linebacker for the Denver Broncos in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Mecklenburg, who is the keynote speaker at this month’s Sports Turf Managers Association’s (STMA) Conference and Exhibition in Denver, says he played on some good fields and some bad ones in his sparkling 12-year career.
At the top of his list, of course, is Denver’s Mile High Stadium, where the Broncos played from 1960 to 2000. Mecklenburg says Ross Kurcab, who was the Broncos’ head turf manager for 30 years, was ahead of his time when it came to sports field maintenance.
“Ross was very particular about the field,” says the 54-year-old Mecklenburg, who remembers Kurcab, the back-page columnist for SportsField Management, taking soil samples from the Mile High Stadium dirt. “We had a great field.”
Mecklenburg also played on some crummy fields. Back in the ’80s, some NFL teams were playing on the same fields that hosted the cities’ Major League Baseball teams.
Mecklenburg cited San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium and remembers playing on its dirt infield, some of it painted green.
The grass fields in those days could get slippery, leading to pulled muscles, he noted.
And then there were the old stadiums and their artificial turf, which could be as hard as granite, Mecklenburg said, noting Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, the Kingdome in Seattle and the Astrodome in Houston.
“I got a concussion in the Kingdome after hitting my head on the ground,” Mecklenburg added.
When he was told that the NFL now has field managers measure the hardness of the turf with a Clegg Impact Tester to reduce head and other injuries, Mecklenburg, who suffered several concussions during his career, said, “That’s awesome.”
Some of the old fields had quirks, especially the Astrodome, Mecklenburg said, noting that dirt was directly under the field’s artificial turf with no buffer.
“They’d have the rodeo or the tractor pull and roll the carpet right back out [for a football game],” he noted.
There was also a pole vault pit near the Astrodome’s 20-yard line, which was covered by plywood.
“You’d be running along, and, boom, you’d hit this plywood over the pole vaulting pit,” Mecklenburg recalled.
There was also gamesmanship at some opposing teams’ stadiums. At New England’s Foxboro Stadium, for instance, Mecklenburg contends that the turf manager watered down the field to slow the Broncos’ pass rushers.
“It hadn’t rained in a week, but when we got out there it was a quagmire,” he said with a laugh.
For the record, Mecklenburg had 17 surgeries, including 10 knee surgeries, because of football injuries.
The six-time Pro Bowler, who played in three Super Bowls (all losses unfortunately), said the greatest game he ever played in was the 1987 AFC Championship game against the Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium – the Broncos won in overtime. The game became an instant classic for “The Drive” that Broncos quarterback John Elway led the team on to tie the game in the last few minutes.
The Broncos were the underdog. Mecklenburg recalled the rabid Cleveland fans welcoming the Broncos at the airport by barking and throwing dog bones at them (Browns fans are known as the Dawgs.) The night before the game, fans outside the Broncos’ hotel created as much noise as possible to keep the players from sleeping.
Mecklenburg remembers walking out on Cleveland’s field while a frigid wind whipped off Lake Erie. The field was basically frozen mud.
“It was us against the world, Mecklenburg said. “It was insane. To go in under those circumstances and win that game … that was as good as it gets.”
Mecklenburg is impressed with the NFL’s new stadiums and high-tech fields, such as the Broncos’ current digs, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, which opened in 2001. The field’s playing surface is a natural Kentucky bluegrass field with the Desso GrassMaster field stabilization system, which strengthens and reinforces the playing surface with millions of artificial fibers that are injected into the surface to a depth of approximately 8 inches. The roots of the natural grass become intertwined with the fibers, anchoring the field and providing greater stability, durability and strength.
“I’m familiar with some of the technology from a distance, and that field is amazing,” Mecklenburg said. “Even at this time of the year it’s in great condition. In the past, by this time of year, the [old field] was pretty beat up.”
Mecklenburg will surely talk some football during his keynote, and one thing he might talk about is overcoming the odds. Get this: The Broncos drafted Mecklenburg with the 310th pick out of 330 picks in the 1983 NFL draft. Most players drafted that low don’t make the team.
Mecklenburg was a walk-on player at the University of Minnesota, and during his junior year of high school he was still on the junior varsity football team.
“I wasn’t somebody [people] expected to make it,” Mecklenburg stated.
Everyone’s low expectations only fueled his desire to succeed.
“My dream was to play football until they chased me away,” Mecklenburg said. “I never really questioned myself, but there were times when others questioned me, and I had to overcome that.”
While growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mecklenburg was inspired by the successful people around him, especially his parents. His father was a physician, and his mother was deputy secretary of health and human services under former President Ronald Reagan.
“They came from blue-collar families,” Mecklenburg said. “They showed me that it was up to me if I wanted to achieve something.”
Mecklenburg defines success as “overcoming obstacles on the way to your dreams.” He believes all successful people had to conquer something.
“The NFL is full of guys who overcame difficult things,” he added.
On the field, Mecklenburg was known for his tenacity, which he brought to every play. He doesn’t understand why some players today have a tendency to take plays off. And it bothers him when a broadcaster says a player has “raised his game” or “taken his game to another level.”
“I say, where was that level [before]?”he asked. “Why would you ever hold something back that you’re capable of? I don’t understand that.”
Mecklenburg had dyslexia when he was a kid and attended speech therapy because of a lisp. But he wrote a book, “The Heart of a Student Athlete,” and is a professional speaker.
“If you want to do something, you can overcome the obstacles to do it,” Mecklenburg said. “I was a slow white kid from the suburbs who played in the NFL.”
Mecklenburg’s approach is to be the best he can be at anything he does.
“I wanted to be the best football player who ever played the game. As a husband and father I want to give unconditional and uncompromising love to my family. As a Christian, I want everything I say and do to reflect God’s love,” he explained.
After retiring from football in 1995, Mecklenburg admits the transition to a regular life was challenging. He missed the structure of being on a team and the adrenaline rush that came with playing.
“That is the toughest thing to replace – the adrenaline,” he said.
Speaking has helped fill that void.
“In a lot of ways it’s a lot like football,” he said.
Mecklenburg forms a game plan for every speech to learn about the group he will be presenting to. Like a football game, he gets up for a speech – his adrenaline is flowing.
“I get the chance to perform … but nobody can hurt me,” he said.