New synthetic grass for Wilson Stadium

When the Bills drafted Willis McGahee, the greatest criticism was that his injured left knee would be subjected to pounding on a hard, sometimes frozen AstroTurf surface.

However, that won't be a problem, for Erie County is paying for a new hybrid surface called AstroPlay at Ralph Wilson Stadium. AstroPlay is in essence synthetic rubber grass. The installation has begun, and is expected to be complete by the end of June.

Team president Tom Donahoe wouldn't say the new surface was a factor in the decision to draft running back McGahee. Instead, Donahoe joked, "No, I consulted with Travis Henry, and he said AstroPlay was what he wanted."

Free safety Pierson Prioleau spoke for the players. They have had AstroPlay on 50 yards, about one-third, of their outdoor practice field since last year.

"Players tend to play with more confidence when they're on a surface such as grass or something like this that's more forgiving," he said. "We could tell the difference when we'd come out of the Fieldhouse. The AstroTurf was a lot harder; we had more aches and pains. And no more rug burns; that's a big excitement."

Prioleau has played on a similar surface, Field Turf, in road games against the Seahawks and Lions. Other teams are installing versions of faux grass this year. When the Bears played home games at the University of Illinois last season, they were the first NFL team to host games on AstroPlay. Ralph Wilson Stadium will be the first NFL venue to use the surface.

"We feel it will be the best stadium surface in the NFL," Donahoe said. "We did extensive research into AstroPlay and all comparable surfaces now available. We wanted to be sure we felt we were getting the best surface. We felt the safety features were outstanding, and the durability. We tested it to see how it would hold up in a Buffalo winter, and it came through with flying colors."

Doing the research over the last two years, were vice president/operations Bill Munson and Joe Frandina, director of stadium operations.

Munson noted the factors that allowed AstroPlay and its manufacturer, SRI Sports, to win out over natural grass and synthetic surfaces from three other manufacturers.

"We've partnering with them a long time. Their serviceability was a factor. If we have a problem, they'll be here that night. We were able to get an eight-year warranty out of them. There was no third party. We have a track record with them."

The stadium has had AstroTurf surfaces since it opened in 1973. Monsanto developed the original product, then sold it to SRI. That company's vice president of sales, Jim Savoca, said he has been servicing the Bills account for 23 years.

Said Munson, "We liked the fact that we didn't have a gravel/sand base with this product. Most of the FieldTurf is sand-based. Based on our research, this was the best way to go."

Here's the makeup of the surface, from ground level up.

– The E (elastic) layer: a one-inch asphalt pad of ground-up tires, gravel and polyurethane. Laying that surface was almost completed as of May 6.

– The "RootZone" layer: .4-inch of AstroTurf, about 20 percent as thick as on a conventional artificial-turf field.

– Polyethylene "grass" fibers: 2.1 inches.

– 1.35 inches of rubber chips, also from ground-up tires, filling the space around the fibers to within three-fourths of an inch from their tops.

Donahoe said the cost of replacing the stadium's four-year-old AstroTurf would come out of the $3 million allocated annually for capital improvements, so "It's not costing anybody anything."

He said he had encouraged Erie County to donate the old turf to a local high school or athletic organization.

The new surface has an eight-year warranty, and an expected life of 10-12 years.

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