Football rivals Douglass and Gwynn Park met in a Maryland 2A South semifinal 10 days ago on a field that was one part grass, one part dirt and most parts mud.
In Prince George’s County, high school football teams are used to this: As the stakes get higher late in the season, the fields they play on — tenuous to begin with, even worse after weeks of soccer and storms — become nearly unplayable.
But Prince George’s County coaches have reason to believe the conditions of their fields will soon improve. A bill mandating the installation of artificial turf at all county high schools will be brought before the Maryland State Assembly in January, and while a similar bill died in the Senate earlier this year, area representatives believe a revised version will have the needed support to pass into law.
In February 2013, Prince George’s County delegates James Proctor Jr. and Jay Walker proposed a bill to the Maryland House of Representatives that required the Prince George’s County Board of Education to install turf fields at every public high school.
That bill called for funding from Program Open Space, a project of the state’s Department of Natural Resources that awards grants to Maryland counties for acquisition and development of land to be kept as “open space” for citizens’ use. Prince George’s County receives grants from Program Open Space to be used at local discretion, and the state also has Open Space funding at its disposal. As proposed, the bill called for funding from both local grants and state funds.
The bill passed in the House, but delegates knew it likely would not pass the Senate. The request for state money, in addition to that local fund already granted Prince George’s County annually by the Open Space program, disquieted state senators. Some also questioned the idea of using money from a program intended to cultivate Maryland’s natural spaces to install a synthetic surface.
Former secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources John Griffin said the House, anticipating these concerns, sent a letter to the delegates from Prince George’s County suggesting they find a way to use entirely local funding. Proctor said that over the past few months, members of the Prince George’s delegation have worked out a funding agreement with the Maryland Parks and Planning Commission, the local Parks Department, the school board and the County Executive’s Office that they believe will do just that.
Neither Proctor nor Walker would disclose specifics of the new plan, but the budget for Program Open Space in Prince George’s County for fiscal year 2014 has allocated money to “the installation of artificial turf fields at various parks and/or other Prince George’s County sites.”
The document lists the project as costing $2 million in 2014 — $1.5 million of which would come from the county’s Open Space funds, $500,000 from “local matching.” That money would go to fields at Gwynn Park and Wise high schools, according to the plan.
Proctor said another aspect making the revised bill more financially realistic is that it stretches the installation of the turf fields over more than a decade: two schools per year until the county’s 22 high schools are complete. Walker also believes legislators better understand the motivation behind the bill.
“I think maybe [legislators] understand better it being a cost-saving measure,” said Walker, who told the House in February that turf fields cost approximately $26,000 less to maintain each year than natural ones. “And they also know it’s not all about cost saving: It’s about safety. Maybe people who aren’t athletes had a chance to go back and look at their local fields and see that it’s not acceptable.”
Eleanor Roosevelt Coach Tom Green and Forestville Coach Charles Harley tried to convey that message to the senate subcommittee when they went to Annapolis to address the issue earlier this year. Harley said most county teams can’t practice on their game field during the season to avoid chopping it up before games. The fields are already chewed up by home soccer games, and if it rains, those fields get little in the way of recovery time.
“Right now we’re practicing on baseball fields or the oval,” Harley said. “The practice fields are maybe not lined. It killed my passing game a lot this year, always practicing on fields that were kind of short and a funky shape. So your spatial awareness is different. With a turf field, you can practice on your game field every day.”
Gwynn Park Coach Danny Hayes said a turf field would also help his players in the college recruiting process.
“What we’ve got to play on, we have to fight against,” Hayes said. “In Florida, they have all turf fields, so the kids look faster and they go to college faster. Our kids look real slow because we’ve got the grass.”
Hayes also brought up the main concern with the current fields: player safety. His team lost starters to ankle injuries and pulled muscles suffered on a choppy, muddy field drenched by a week’s worth of rain earlier this fall.
The problems with Prince George’s County high school fields aren’t a recent development and may have impacted teams’ seasons over the past decade or more. Harley said poor field conditions derailed a Suitland team with state-title potential in the early 2000s. In 2009, when Gwynn Park hosted Douglass in the 2A South region championship, some say the inescapable, unavoidable mud common on poor-draining fields cost the Yellow Jackets a win.
According to Proctor’s son, James Proctor III, who photographs all the Gwynn Park games, an entire end zone was under water at 10 a.m. on the day of the game. After a crew pumped gallons and gallons of water off the field, the end zone and red zone on that side were still so soaked that planting a foot and kicking a field goal became impossible in one direction. That altered strategy for both teams in a game Gwynn Park lost.
In this year’s edition, the sloppy field didn’t affect the outcome of the game, and no players were injured. At halftime, Proctor Jr. announced his expectation that Gwynn Park’s field would soon be turf to a community very happy to hear it. As Douglass Coach J.C. Pinkney said, the kids deserve better.
The field that day “was horrible,” said Pinkney, who’s in his 16th season with the Eagles and 12th as their head coach. “We were slipping all over the place, and they were playing on it, too, but it shouldn’t be that way. . . . In the surrounding counties, everybody else has nice fields. Ours are just ragtag.”