Bears’ Soldier Field usually one of the worst in the NFL — Vikings play there Sunday

November 18, 2018

There was a time, believe it or not, when most NFL playing surfaces didnt serve as three-hour infomercials for lawn care or low-maintenance FieldTurf. When gridirons crisscrossed baseball diamonds. When the only heating systems came not from miles of underground pipe but that big orange ball in the sky.

When Bud Grant and his four Grey Cup trophies came south from Winnipeg to coach the Vikings in 1967, they brought with them a pre-global warming savviness that often helped the Vikings cope with elements that were out of the NFLs control at the time.

We used to carry broomball shoes, said longtime Vikings equipment manager Dennis Ryan. That was Buds deal in Canada. If the field iced over, guys would put broomball shoes on. We didnt wear them often, but we did in Boston when they were the Boston Patriots and games were at Harvard Stadium.

Fields have evolved immensely, but even in mid-November 2018, NFL playing surfaces were a topic of discussion this week.

Nationally and internationally, the leagues eye was blackened when it was forced to move on six days notice the seasons marquee prime time game from Mexico City because of horrendous field conditions at Azteca Stadium. Diverting the 9-1 Chiefs and the 9-1 Rams to Los Angeles is a blow to a league itching for global domination.

Locally and regionally, the Vikings head to Soldier Field, a proverbial 100-yard box of chocolates made even more unpredictable by a 7:20 p.m. kickoff.

I dont like to be critical of surfaces, but its normally not one of the best, Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. Its been pretty consistent that way.

The Chicago Park District oversees Soldier Field. The Bears are but one attraction that uses the facility, so the sod can get pretty sad as the season ages.

Sometimes, that field is re-sodded two or three times a season. Many times, its a patch job between the hash marks. This year, Bears General Manager Ryan Pace urged a total re-sod, which was done about two weeks ago.

There were no issues or complaints after last weeks game against the Lions. A rarity for mid- to late-season games on a field that players routinely rate among the five worst in the league.

The Vikings expect good conditions but are prepared for the worst. Each player will have at least three pairs of cleats on hand. One will be the molded bottoms, which players wear indoors and most prefer. The other two pairs will be seven-stud shoes, one with five-eighths-inch studs and one with half-inch studs.

The team also carries three-quarter-inch studs that can be put on quickly with a drill. But that length hasnt been used in years because rarely does a field in todays NFL get that sloppy.

You decide in pregame how it feels, Smith said. Ive worn both the moldeds and the [five-eighth-inch studs] in Chicago. What I dont get is why they dont make studded shoes with more than seven studs. The moldeds are shorter, but theres [16] of them and theyre all over.

Footwear has been a valuable piece of equipment since the leagues early days. In fact, the 1934 NFL Championship game is known as the Sneakers Game.

The Bears and Giants were playing on a frozen field at the Polo Grounds in New York. Legend has it that Ray Flaherty, Giants captain and assistant coach, mentioned to head coach Steve Owen that he once played in sneakers to get better traction on a frozen field.

Owen had a friend named Abe Cohen, who worked the sidelines during Giants games. Cohen went way back with Chick Meehan, the coach at Manhattan College.

Cohen had the keys to the Manhattan gym. He hopped a cab, fetched about a dozen pairs of sneakers and got back to the Polo Grounds in the second half.

The Bears led 13-3 entering the fourth quarter. The Giants put the sneakers on, scored 27 fourth-quarter points and won 30-13.

Eighty-four years later, Vikings receiver Adam Thielen was asked about the challenges that receivers and defensive backs face when it comes to keeping their feet under them at Soldier Field.

Its equally hard on both of us, he said. Its just whos not going to slip on that play. Because if you slip and he doesnt, its going to be a bad play.

Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: mcraig@startribune.com

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