If the 49ers’ back-to-back home games against the Eagles and Chiefs were the pivotal test for Levi’s Stadium’s newly installed grass, then the field gets a gold star and a green thumb.
“It plays very well,” said kicker Phil Dawson.
“I think we’ve got the best (grass) field,” wide receiver Stevie Johnson said. “Every other natural-grass place is kind of iffy.”
Said safety Eric Reid: “It’s a lot better than it was during the preseason.”
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The reviews were far more tepid a month and a half ago when the grass – not Jim Harbaugh’s tenure or Ray McDonald’s status or fan violence in a Levi’s restroom – was the No. 1 story in Santa Clara.
Harbaugh halted an Aug. 20 practice because of unsafe playing conditions, prompting the 49ers’ front office to rip up the field and install a temporary one for the preseason home finale against San Diego four days later.
When that game was over, the team started working on a more permanent solution.
The 49ers brought in groundskeeping and soil experts and determined the mixture below the turf was too sandy and porous. It allowed water to drain too quickly, and the grass’ roots weren’t taking hold.
Divots are expected when 315-pound men in cleats dig in their heels and grapple over inches of turf for 60 minutes. But dish-towel-sized slices of turf were coming up when players tried to change directions.
“We had guys not being able to get out of cuts,” 49ers chief operating officer Al Guido said. “After that practice, we knew that, structurally, something was wrong.”
So the 49ers brought in bulldozers and backhoes to remove the first 8 inches of sand from one wall of the stadium to the other, an area that measures 106,000 square feet.
At the same time, head groundskeeper Matt Greiner and a team of experts set off to in search of new grass. The group found what it was seeking – a 11/2-inch-thick, mature field of a strain called Tifway II. On Aug. 30 it was installed on the new base layer.
An early sign the original field wasn’t repairing itself correctly came in July after a concert by John Legend celebrating the opening of the stadium. A portion of the grass in the south end of the stadium was damaged by the concert equipment.
The large brown patch that resulted should have turned green again in a matter of days. But more than a month after the concert, the mark still was apparent, an ominous sign for a venue scheduled to host multiple events in addition to 10 NFL games.
The biggest question for the rebuilt field, then, was whether it could repair itself following the 49ers’ Sept. 28 game against the Eagles in time for the game against the Chiefs seven days later.
“The Eagles-K.C. weekends were massive, and we did literally no re-sodding,” Guido said. “If you took a shot of the field after the Eagles game and before the K.C. game, you could see that most of the divots had started to repair themselves.”
The grass that’s on the field now is unlikely to last through the year.
Levi’s Stadium hosted two high school games Friday and two more Saturday. The next event is Oct. 24 when Cal takes on Oregon. Guido said the 49ers probably will have to replace the most heavily trafficked areas between the numbers for that game.
The 49ers’ next home game is Nov. 2, and after that the field will enjoy its longest respite – three weeks – before the 49ers host Washington on Nov. 23.
But the team is now confident the composition beneath the surface is correct, and that anything planted above it will take hold in time for the next event on the schedule.
“Those guys deserve a lot of credit,” said Dawson, who has yet to miss a field-goal attempt in his home stadium. “It is well documented the struggles we had early. For the field to be as good as it is now is incredible given where we started. Hats off to those guys. Hopefully with this sunny California weather, it will keep growing and we can keep it playable the rest of the year.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.