I’ve always loved to mow. It’s a great way to slowly inspect the whole field. And I get time to just sit, and think.

The grass plant is the most incredible, successful and toughest organism in the history of Earth. How does any of the grass on my field survive the things we put it through? Any other plant would have died long ago.

Depending on who you read, grasses have been around for 55 to 65 million years, maybe longer. The many ways grasses have benefitted man over the eons are too numerous to list, but perhaps former senator from Kansas John James Ingalls said it best in an 1872 essay, “In Praise of Bluegrass,” printed in the Kansas Magazine. Following is an excerpt.

“Grass is the forgiveness of nature – her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. Beleaguered by the sullen hosts of winter, it withdraws to the impregnable fortress of its subterranean vitality, and emerges upon the first solicitation of spring. Sown by winds, by wandering birds, propagated by the subtle horticulture of the elements which are its ministers and servants, it softens the rude outline of the world. Its tenacious fibres hold the earth in its place, and prevent its soluble components from washing into the wasting sea. It invades the solitude of deserts, climbs the inaccessible slopes and forbidding pinnacles of mountains, modifies climates, and determines the history, character and destiny of nations. Unobtrusive and patient, it has immortal vigor and aggression. Banished from the thoroughfare and the field, it bides its time to return when vigilance is relaxed, or the dynasty has perished, it silently resumes the throne from which it has been expelled, but which it never abdicates. It bears no blazonry or bloom to charm the senses with fragrance or splendor, but its homely hue is more enchanting than the lily or the rose. It yields no fruit in earth or air, and yet should its harvest fail for a single year, famine would depopulate the world.”

As I mow, I think about grazing. I think about ungulates and other “hoofed” animals (football players). I believe grasses evolved because of ungulates and other animals cutting into roots with their hoofs while grazing. The ingenious growth habit of grasses, which allows it to tolerate such abuse, is the result. Nowadays we mow our fields instead of grazing them, and traffic them with cleated athletes. The only difference is that, for millions of years, once the animals grazed and trampled an area, they moved on!

We didn’t start playing sports on grass until sometime in the late 1800s. Before the industrial revolution and its efficiencies, we didn’t have much time for sports and leisure. That was mostly for the wealthy class. Finding a relatively flat, grassed area must have seemed the natural thing to do for early participants. In the U.S., the early 1900s saw the first stadiums and perhaps some of the earliest efforts to culture a sports surface out of grass. Recreational teams would often play in their steel-toed, leather work boots. Joseph Pipal was a football coach from 1907-1923 at several universities. He is often credited with the first football mud cleats (as well as the lateral pass). By the 1940s, there were at least three companies selling cleats. I look at traction as the cleat digging into the soil, mat and thatch and providing for a change in direction or acceleration/deceleration by pushing against the sides of the cleat (like a tank track). I think of grip as friction with the grass surface, like playing in tennis shoes. The general term “footing” is often used as an evaluation of both traction and grip. The athletes want perfect traction and grip (footing). They believe they can perform better. The irony here is that, in my opinion, the safest field for a footballer will have some slips and skates. It’s this perfect combination of slightly slick on top and stable below that makes grass so loved by many athletes. Dive with your arms out front and you will slide when you hit. But try to make a bad cut (i.e. off your inside foot), and you’ll get dropped like a bad habit. My opinion is that because of this perfect combination, grass makes the athlete play within the limits of his or her physical infrastructure, and the better ones will adjust their play to the surface they are on. Others seem to agree.

In spring 2010, the American Journal of Sports Medicine published a paper entitled Shoe-Surface Friction Influences Movement Strategies During a Sidestep Cutting Task, Implications for Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury Risk. (http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/38/3/478). In short, 22 subjects ran and performed a 30-degree cut in direction on different surfaces (low and high friction), hooked up to biomechanical sensors. Talking about the tests on high-friction (perfect “footing”) surfaces, Ariel Dowling, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford and an author of the study, said, “So instead of being centered over their foot, they moved it further backward and further toward the opposite side of their body, giving them a more extended stance compared to the low-friction surface. Those results suggest that these changes could lead to the higher incidents of ACL injuries seen on the high-friction surface.” (A sticky situation may lead to ACL injuries, Kansas City Star-April 22, 2010.)

So, grass and ancient cows gave us this wonderful sports surface, in a story 55 million years in the making. Not only that, but it is pretty much a self-repairing system that uses solar energy as its power source. It works like an electrical circuit breaker for the body. When overloaded it trips (divots). Falling at speed, I would always want to slide rather than stick. Why do you suppose boxers put Vaseline on their faces before the bout?

Maybe I should focus on my mowing, I just about ran into a sideline TV cart!

“Until man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge.” – Thomas Edison.

Ross Kurcab, who holds a bachelor’s in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University, has 26 years of turf management experience and is the first Certified Sports Field Manager). You may reach him at ross@sportsfieldmanagementmagazine.com.