FARGO -- North Dakota State head football coach Craig Bohl has been in the business for 29 years. And when it comes to injuries, this year is the worst he's seen, he said.
Last year wasn't pretty, either.
But if you're looking to blame the Fargodome's artificial turf, well, good luck. About the only direct connection to the turf can be found on Pat Paschall's arms. The Bison running back has so many scrapes and burns that it may take awhile before his skin returns to a single tone.
"That's rough," Paschall said. "I didn't know much about it, but when you fall on it and you skin your arm up, that hurts. There's just not that much cushion. You have a concrete floor and an inch and a half of pad. It's a little different, but I'm used to it."
Made by AstroTurf, the company that invented the product back in the 1960s made famous by the Houston Astrodome, the Fargodome version that was installed in 2002 is a next generation technology called "Magic Carpet." It's a large, one-piece section of turf that can be rolled up and stored in a pit below the south end zone of the dome.
There is one undisputed fact about the Magic Carpet: it is the hardest surface in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Two schools have natural grass fields and the other six have modern spongy turfs that use infill products like ground-up tires for padding.
Bison players and coaches agree that there is a difference when getting tackled at the Fargodome compared to fields in the rest of the league. On the other hand, the dome turf is also considered one of the fastest surfaces in the conference.
But there is no medical evidence to suggest that a harder surface directly correlates to more injuries.
"No, people think that's the case," said Scott Woken, the director of sports medicine at NDSU. "Nobody has enough evidence in a research study saying artificial turf leads to more knee injuries."
NDSU injuries span the football field surfaces
Still, the curiosity is there to draw a connection. NDSU has seen turf toe injuries to running back Mike Sigers, tight end Matt Veldman and defensive end Coulter Boyer.
Sigers is out for the season. Boyer has played through it. Veldman came back last Saturday and caught a touchdown pass against Indiana State. The injury is usually a sprain to the big toe that makes pushing off to run a painful chore.
It was an ailment that bothered standout receiver Kole Heckendorf most of last season.
This year, the Bison lost middle linebacker Tyler Henry and tight end Thor Brown to knee ligament tears at home games. Other known leg injuries suffered by players during home games this year were to linebacker Matt Kittelson (high ankle sprain), noseguard Michael Fairbairn (knee ligament sprain) and cornerback Derrius Colvin (sprained arch).
But the team also suffered injuries on its new Sprinturf practice field. Wide receiver Delane Woods blew out his knee in the first week he was here after transferring from East Los Angeles Community College. Fullback Lee Vandal suffered a knee ligament sprain in the last scrimmage in August.
And as bad as this year has been, 2002 was worse. Woken can recite the injuries like a lock combination: Eight ACLs, two ruptured tendons and a couple of ankles. Of the eight knee ligament injuries, five were suffered at home and three on the road.
"That was a year when we just got nailed with injuries," Woken said. "It was nothing surface related."
Moreover, Woken said, the Fargodome turf is softer than the Bison grass practice fields when they freeze late in the fall.
Fargodome eyeing new turf in next few years
Fargodome general manager Rob Sobolik said the dome plans to replace the Magic Carpet in either 2015 or 2016 and it already has an eye on a product: Magic Carpet II.
The current price estimate is about $2 million.
"Whether it's 2015, 2016 or whether it's sooner or later or when it's available, we're not sure," Sobolik said.
Northern Michigan University, which plays in the 8,000-seat Superior Dome, installed it this summer and the early reviews are positive.
"The players love it," said Carl Bammert, the facilities director at NMU. "It's a lot easier on their bodies as far as abrasions go."
The Magic Carpet II uses a softer synthetic for the turf (as opposed to the rigid Fargodome turf that scars Paschall's arms) and the technology includes the possibility of infill like tire pellets, Sobolik said. NMU opted against that, but Bammert did say the new turf is softer. He said some players actually use a cleated shoe commonly used on natural grass.
Like the Fargodome, the NMU facility is multi-purpose, making the one piece roll-up turf optimal for usage. Bammert said it takes only 20 minutes to take it out and 20 minutes to put it back in.
"We need to convert it quickly," he said.
That wasn't the case with the old Fargodome turf, which was purchased when the dome opened in 1993. It was a used product from Texas Christian University. It was cheap at $200,000, but it also had 28 rolls and had to be taken up and put back in pieces.
If you're in the corner of wanting FieldTurf in the Fargodome, then the turnaround time will be about the same as the old TCU turf.
It took six to seven hours to take out and about eight hours and 15 employees to put back.
The Magic Carpet significantly cut into that labor cost, taking about 90 minutes and five people to take out, meaning the dome can make significant progress on preparing for another event before players leave the locker room after a game.
Hopefully, next year, less players will be limping out of the locker room.
"As far as trying to find a common denominator (for knee injures) from a game surface to a practice surface, there is no correlation," Woken said.
Around the league
The football field surfaces of the Missouri Valley Football Conference:
Illinois State, Missouri State
FieldTurf: The first company to popularize the spongy surface, it uses an infill of sand and cryogenic rubber to soften the landings.
Indiana State, Southern Illinois
AstroPlay: Made by AstroTurf, it's the next generation of the company's old traditional turf using a combination of nylon and rubber fill.
Western Illinois, South Dakota State
Natural grass. When in good shape, the surface is optimal but NDSU found out at Western Illinois two weeks ago that a wet field is not a lot of fun.
Sprinturf: The same field that NDSU installed for a practice facility at the old Dacotah Field site, it combines synthetic turf with rubber infill.
MondoTurf: With its patented "Ecofill," it uses reground tires and combines with synthetic fibers. Southern Illinois will use this surface at its new stadium next season.
North Dakota State
AstroTurf Magic Carpet: The only artificial surface in the league not to use an infill system, the padded turf is ideal for multi-use facilities because of its easy-in, easy-out ability.