Fans who have been to the Metrodome this year or late last year have noticed a lot of differences outside and inside the building. No longer forced to share the venue with the Twins, who secured public funding for a new stadium from Hennepin County, when the Twins got bumped from the playoffs in October, the Vikings became the stadium's only major revenue-producing tenant.
Change began immediately. Within days, a deal was announced that the playing surface of the Metrodome would be called Mall of America Field – ironic considering that the first home of the Vikings (Metropolitan Stadium) was torn down and the Mall of America theme park sits on the site where the Met used to be. Within weeks of the Twins being done with indoor baseball, the exterior of the Metrodome took on a definite purple and gold flavor.
What wasn't immediately visible to a passersby or even fans in the stands when the Vikings took the field Saturday against Seahawks was a new playing surface.
In March, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission approved a $1.3 million project that included replacing the six-year-old playing surface with new Sportexe – a surface much softer than the old turf. The Vikings moved one of their practices to the Metrodome last week to get a feel for it and played their first game on the new turf against Seattle last week.
The early reports were almost unanimously positive. The new turf isn't perfect, but it's a big improvement.
"It's real soft," said 12-year veteran Antoine Winfield. "After a few games, I'm sure we'll grind it in. Turf is tough no matter how they try to improve it. Injuries are going to happen. Turf can grab when you plant your foot, but that's part of playing football."
The problem with the old turf had more to do with being rolled up and off for events on the Metrodome floor. It was sharing the field with a baseball team. The Twins benefitted much more from a tightly-rolled hard playing surface. On countless occasions during their history at the dome, the stadium itself came into play. Fielders would lose sight of a ball in the roof. Balls that landed in the outfield tended to bounce over unsuspecting outfielders charging in and expecting a "normal" bounce. There was a reason for those singles becoming doubles or triples – the Twins wanted the playing surface as hard as possible. It created constant problems for the Vikings to be the co-tenant. Strips of turf where the pitcher's mound and bases were located added the rock-hard surface the field had become over the last couple of years.
"With the Twins playing on it, they rolled it a lot," tight end Jim Kleinsasser said. "Especially where second base was where they put in the little sections to cover the dirt, those were really rolled tight. They would get slick and make footing bad. I love the new turf. Anything that will hold my big feet in place I'm fine with."
Kleinsasser has as much right as anyone to appreciate the new turf in the Metrodome. When he arrived in Minnesota in 1999 as a second-round draft pick, he got his introduction to the Metrodome turf as a blocking fullback and tight end. At the time, the turf was compared by some to being the equivalent of concrete painted green.
"We used to wear basketball shoes out there," Kleinsasser said. "Things have changed a lot … for the better."
While the clear consensus is that the new turf is a marked improvement, the new turf isn't getting hailed as the ideal solution to the problem. Akin to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, all three viewpoints are represented – some think it's too soft, some think it's too hard and some think it's just right. While the Baby Bear quotient (just right) may not be the majority viewpoint, it's better than the skin-burning turf that has left just about every Viking with some sort of pinkish scar tissue as a result.
"It was so much better than the turf we had before," linebacker Ben Leber said. "It's a nice improvement. For the most part, everybody's happy with it. Sure, there were some who said it was too soft or too firm, but the majority of guys truly enjoyed it. Not having those seams and cutouts from the baseball use of the turf is big. There were some bad spots there. The linemen hated them. The kickers hated them. Now it's turf for a football field."
One player on the Mama Bear side of the conversation (too soft) is linebacker Chad Greenway. His game is predicated on speed and reaction – planting his foot and closing in on a play. He had reason to dislike the old Metrodome turf. He was covering a kick, planted his foot in the turf, got it stuck and tore his ACL – ending his rookie season in the first quarter of his first preseason game. While he agrees the new turf is an improvement, he would like to see it tweaked in order to get a better playing surface.
"It was a big difference," Greenway said. "It is soft, which, in some cases, can be a detriment because you stick in it a little bit and it slows you up slightly. Overall, it's a better quality turf. For me, I hope it gets a little harder than it is now, but it's an improvement regardless."
The Dutch Boy-coated parking lot turf that the Metrodome used be are long gone. The turf put in six years ago was an improvement – from nothing to something. The new turf is another big step forward – the first turf designed for football, not baseball. For the veterans on the Vikings from Brett Favre on down, having a softer landing spot won't make the hits any less violent, but may cut down on the second wave of pain provided courtesy of the Metrodome floor.
"We've got a lot of old guys on this team – guys who have been around the league for a long time," Kleinsasser said. "Anything we can do to make hitting the ground any softer, the better for us. None of us are getting any younger."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
New turf gets generally positive reviews
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