Home-field disadvantage: Prince George’s County athletes play on despite poor field conditions

September 3, 2014

Canada geese drink water from a broken sprinkler head at Eleanor Roosevelt — one of a number of Prince George’s County schools dealing with poor field conditions yet again this fall. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Isaiah Prince will take the field for at least six Eleanor Roosevelt home games this season, and major college coaches likely will be there for all of them. They will sit on rickety bleachers, hoping to persuade the 6-foot-6, 270-pound lineman to spend the next four years playing in front of tens of thousands of fans on impeccable playing surfaces — in Tuscaloosa or at Ohio State, the Swamp in Gainesville or Byrd Stadium in College Park, perhaps.

For now, Prince will work on Roosevelt’s home field, which on a recent afternoon looked more like a marsh than a playing surface. A broken sprinkler head burst earlier in the day, flooding the home sideline just in time for practice, luring a few dozen geese who provided unsolicited natural fertilizer. Patches of dead grass dotted the area in front of the end zone, just below the scoreboard welcoming visitors to the “Home of the Eleanor Roosevelt Raiders.”

“It’s terrible,” Prince said. “But we have to work anyway. No excuses.”

As the 2014 high school football season begins, such is life on many fields in Prince George’s County, a hit-or-miss collection of crab grass, ryegrass, and sometimes no grass, treaded by some of the state’s top talent. By season’s end nearly all of the fields succumb to rain, cleats and inconsistent maintenance. It’s a problem Prince George’s County has long endured but never seen rectified.

Roosevelt Coach and Athletic Director Tom Green had asked the county’s maintenance staff to fix the sprinkler head a few weeks before.

“We’ll get to it when we can,” he said they told him.

Answers like that result from the strained relationship between budget and bureaucracy that complicates efforts to raise the quality of Prince George’s County fields to that of neighboring areas such as Montgomery.

Montgomery County allocated about $65,000 to the athletic departments of each of its 25 high schools in 2014, according to county Athletic Director William Beattie . Prince George’s County Public Schools allocates $17,000 to each school’s athletic department each year, according to Athletic Director Earl Hawkins, who added that the county public school system’s maintenance department pays the bulk of field maintenance costs.

Repeated efforts to contact the PGCPS maintenance department were unsuccessful.

A bill mandating installation of turf fields at all Prince George’s County high schools over the next five years continues to stall. The Prince George’s County House delegation proposed a bill in February requiring the Board of Education to install turf fields at every county high school, four per year until each school was complete. The bill was brought to the House, heard and tabled because of questions over who would pay the $600,000-750,000 required for each field.


Patches of dead grass and dirt spot the area near the end zone at Eleanor Roosevelt’s field. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Water from a broken sprinkler head drains down a gully on the sideline of the field at Eleanor Roosevelt. Raiders Coach and athletic director Tom Green had asked the county to repair the sprinklers weeks before it broke. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The field at Roosevelt, like several other county schools, has for years featured a combination of weeds, crab grass, and some ryegrass, which can be found in an average suburban lawn. Divots populate the highly crowned field, and exposed sprinkler heads loom near the far end zone.

Last season, a Raiders soccer player took an errant step into the ditch around a sprinkler head and suffered a broken and dislocated hip. He still has not been medically cleared to return.

Green spent his summer trying to smooth out his field. A landscaping company estimated that resodding — laying down a new field of Bermuda grass — would cost between $50,000 and $60,000, money the county would not pay. His other option was to sprig the field with Bermuda grass implants, or replant it with partially grown Bermuda grass seeds, a process that would take more time but cost less, around $7,000 according to his estimate.

The county athletic department would not help pay for those options prior to the 2014 season, so Green turned to his school’s athletic budget . He aerated the field and spread pounds of player-safe weed-killers himself with the Gator tractor the county bought for Roosevelt last year. He monitored and ran the sprinkler systems and did his best to keep members of the community off the field.

Crossland Athletic Director Eric Knight does not have control of the school’s sprinkler system. The county controls it, so the Cavaliers’ field is left to precipitation's discretion, regardless of how often Knight reseeds it.

Crossland was one of 20 fields maintained in part by the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation through a program called “Fields for Tomorrow.” That program, which began in 2000, was not renewed after last season.

Signs hung over those fields telling fans they were “maintained by the Washington Redskins,” who dedicated more than $200,000 to the fields in the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to the foundation’s tax returns. Even that sum could not improve conditions. Knight said the Redskins stopped working on the Cavaliers’ field and asked him to take down the sign, he believes because of his inability to water the grass the program was paying to maintain.

The Redskins did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the program.

“I’ve coached in the county so long, it’s just old,” said Suitland Coach Ed Shields, whose field was maintained by the Redskins but was still mostly mud and trampled weeds by the time his Rams hosted the Maryland 4A state semifinal against Meade last November.

“A state semifinal game should not have been played on a surface like that,” said Meade Coach Rich Holzer, who coached in Prince George’s County at Parkdale.

“They had the right to have a home game, they ran through a tough schedule, but there should have been something done with that field.”

Shields agreed.

“We shouldn’t have had to play here. It was bad that day, and they play on turf, so it was really bad for them,” he said. “But that’s our home field.”

Not all Prince George’s County fields will begin the 2014 season in poor shape. Surrattsville’s field is lush, low-cut, and smooth. Wise’s field is in similarly good shape.

Gwynn Park will begin construction on a turf field midway through this season with funds approved by the county. Wise also will build a turf field this academic year with county funds. Renovations of the building at Oxon Hill included a new stadium and turf field, which will be ready for use at some point this season, according to Coach Craig Jefferies.

Northwestern Coach Bryan Pierre, whose field is among the county’s most perilous, said he sees the administration’s commitment to safety in concussion awareness and heat safety policies, “but they really have to look at the fields when they’re doing this.”

“I don’t know why in Prince George’s County we have to stay archaic,” Pierre said, “have our athletes play in the mud where it is dangerous, where it isn’t safe for them to play.”

Chelsea Janes covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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