- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Citing safety concerns about the Soldier Field playing surface, the Chicago Bears canceled Friday's practice, but conducted their annual Family Fest as scheduled.
According to Soldier Field general manager Tim LeFevour, the stadium's grounds crew -- hoping to dry the field to make it firmer for Friday's practice -- "miscalculated" and didn't administer the proper amount of water to the surface, causing the rectangular seams of sod to come apart, thus creating gaps in the field that could potentially cause injury.
"Unfortunately tonight [it] was determined that it wasn't safe for practice. So the players have all headed back to Bourbonnais to conduct practice back at Olivet Nazarene University," said Scott Hagel, Bears senior director of corporate communications. "We're terribly sorry. Obviously, this was an unforeseen circumstance. Any other further information that we're able to do as a make-good will be listed on our website ChicagoBears.com."
LeFevour explained the workers didn't properly account for the recent hot and dry conditions, but interestingly, said the field was playable just a day before the Bears were scheduled to practice on it.
Three hours before the scheduled start, Bears coach Lovie Smith, president Ted Phillips and general manager Jerry Angelo met in the middle of the field with officials from the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field. The few players milling about on the field were told by Smith to leave and head back to the team buses.
Meanwhile, stadium workers walked the field carrying blue buckets full of sand to fill the gaps in between the rectangular pieces of sod. The sod comes in 3-foot wide rolls that measure 30-feet long and weigh 1 to 1½ tons when laid out, and are pieced together somewhat like a puzzle.
LeFevour said that when subjected to hot and dry conditions, the seams between those rolls come apart. LeFevour dismissed the notion that the condition of the field was the result of recent events such as the U2 concert or July 23 Manchester United soccer match.
Stadium officials re-sodded the turf 3½ weeks ago.
"It's not the condition from the U2 concert or the Manchester soccer game. Over the last few weeks we've had some extreme heat conditions," LeFevour said. "They did not get enough water on the field. Some of the seams opened up. It's not an issue or concern with next [week's preseason opener]. We know it can be corrected. But in the best interest of the team tonight, it was the right move to send them back to Bourbonnais to practice."
LeFevour first recognized a potential problem six hours before the scheduled start of practice, and relayed those concerns to team officials, who also examined the surface before the sides came to consensus about loading the players back onto the buses for the trip back to training camp.
Shortly after making the decision, the team decided to let frustrated fans into the stadium and announced it would give full refunds to all ticket holders, in addition to offering free food and non-alcoholic beverages. The team also announced it would continue on with its fireworks display, and refund money to patrons who parked in Soldier Field lots on their way out of the stadium.
The team's practice in Bourbonnais, meanwhile, was closed to the public.
Although Soldier Field has been heavily criticized for years around the league, and by Bears players, team chairman George McCaskey said the club won't switch to a synthetic surface because of player safety concerns.
"It's not a money issue on the turf," McCaskey said Tuesday on "The Carmen, Jurko & Harry Show" on ESPN 1000. "At this point, primarily, it's a safety issue. The studies aren't conclusive, but the studies that we have looked at have shown higher incidence of lower-leg injuries among players on artificial turf. We want to prolong careers. We want our players to be safe. We want our investment in the players to be protected and the state of artificial turf or an infield surface is such now that we think the safest surface for our players in natural grass."
LeFevour said he'll continue to honor the club's wishes, despite the headaches caused by dealing with the natural-grass field, which typically becomes virtually unplayable in the winter.
Placed numerous times into the center of the grass-versus-turf debate, LeFevour said the latest issue with the surface at Soldier Field isn't a major problem at this time.
"There's always that debate. Is it the infield surface or is it the grass? Right now, the Bears have determined they want to continue to play on grass in the Northern climate in Chicago," LeFevour said. "If that's the surface they want to play on, we're gonna continue to commit ourselves to them, to giving them the best playing surface. It's unfortunate what happened tonight. It was a miscalculation on our part and the seams opened up."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.