Footing in football matters. It’s paramount to a player’s success. The kind of turf used in a turf war, whether natural or artificial, brings a variety of opinions to the surface.

“Turf provides more consistency regarding traction. Grass always forced me to be more balanced when cutting since it had the tendency to give out if my legs weren’t under me,” said former BYU running back Curtis Brown. “This impacted my opponents defense as well since defenders couldn’t fly up to the ball out of control or they would get shook. I personally prefer turf simply due to its consistency.”

Brown rushed for 3,193 yards and 34 touchdowns and became BYU’s first running back with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons until Harvey Unga passed him with a trio of his own 1,000-yard seasons. Unlike Brown, Unga prefers to run on grass.

“Natural grass is by far my favorite surface to play on,” Unga said. “One of the biggest reasons is that I have had all my major injuries on artificial turf. The grass is more forgiving on your joints, ligaments and bones. It doesn’t hurt as bad when you get tackled on grass.”

Former defensive back Brian Logan started 24 games at BYU and finished with five interceptions and 95 tackles. He preferred playing on artificial turf while another former defensive back, Derwin Gray, who intercepted 14 passes during his time in Provo, sees it differently.

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“I prefer to play on natural grass because grass is so much more forgiving than artificial turf,” Gray said, siding with a slew of former and current players who have performed on both surfaces.

“You get beat up on turf, even the new stuff,” said former linebacker David Nixon, who played three seasons at BYU and finished with 118 solo tackles and 32 tackles-for-loss. “You get nasty scars, which is why guys wear arm coverings. Those types of bruises don’t heal. You have to play the rest of the season with open wounds. You go home and bleed all over your sheets. It’s not fun.”

Former Cougars hall of famers Dennis Pitta and Austin Collie had record-setting careers as teammates, and both would avoid turf if possible.

“I have always had better traction and footing on natural grass,” said Pitta, who caught a school-record 221 passes for 2,901 yards and 21 touchdowns at BYU. “I could change direction at the top of a route with more precision and speed.”

Collie, who amassed 3,255 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns in three seasons for the Cougars, also prefers grass as long as it’s manicured to be tight and fast.

“There was nothing worse than playing on a slippery, unstable field. As a receiver, you never felt confident in your breaks when you were slipping every other route. I do think artificial turf does have a significant impact on the well-being of the players and increases the likelihood of injury over the course of time.” — former BYU and NFL receiver Austin Collie

“There was nothing worse than playing on a slippery, unstable field,” Collie said. “As a receiver, you never felt confident in your breaks when you were slipping every other route. I do think artificial turf does have a significant impact on the well-being of the players and increases the likelihood of injury over the course of time.”

BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis played three years at USC and last season at Pittsburgh. He has thrown for over 9,000 yards and 68 touchdowns while competing on both surfaces.

“I think it feels natural on grass. I grew up playing on a grass field in high school,” Slovis said. “But I will say it depends on the grass. I’ve been on some bad grass as well and in that case, I’d rather have turf.”

Cougars running back Aidan Robbins rushed for 1,011 yards and nine touchdowns last season at UNLV. Ten of his 11 games were played on artificial turf.

“On turf it feels like you are gliding a little bit, but on grass you feel more stable,” Robbins said. “I didn’t start playing on turf until recently in my career. I’m happy BYU has grass.”

Grass stains

Natural grass leaves its mark on a football uniform and that is important to former linebacker Brandon Ogletree, who enjoyed planting opponents into the ground.

Brandon Ogletree celebrates after knocking down a pass during game against Wyoming at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“You get to see the grass stains on the other team’s ball carriers,” said Ogletree, who led BYU in tackles in 2011 and 2012. “And, you don’t get rubber beads in your eyes when you get up from a pile.”

Even though Unga was a running back, he found joy in physically pounding his tacklers and the residue on his uniform was evidence of a job well done.

“From a young kid, I would gauge how hard I played in the game by the number of dark grass stains on my uniform,” said Unga, who rushed for 3,455 yards and scored 45 touchdowns during his BYU career.

“I love grass,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, who played fullback for the Cougars. “You can’t get a grass stain on turf. I just like the grass. I think it’s meant to be played on grass.”

For quarterback Brandon Doman, natural grass trumped turf in another areas too.

“There is nothing better than playing on well-groomed grass,” said Doman, who threw for 4,354 yards and 35 touchdowns while rushing for 673 and 11 touchdowns at BYU. “The smell of the grass and the feel under your cleats made it better. I felt less prone to injury in almost every way on grass.” 

Standing alone

Not only is LaVell Edwards Stadium the largest football venue in Utah, but it is also the last to feature natural grass. Utah State, Weber State, Utah Tech, Utah and Southern Utah have all gravitated to artificial turf.

When the Cougars debut in the Big 12 next fall, they will join Oklahoma, TCU, Central Florida and Iowa State as venues with grass, while the other nine programs play on turf. After 2024, when Oklahoma and Texas leave for the SEC, BYU will brandish the largest stadium (63,470) in the Big 12.

“I prefer natural grass 100 to 1 over artificial turf,” said former BYU tight end Chad Lewis, who caught 118 passes for 1,433 yards and 11 touchdowns. “LaVell Edwards Stadium was my favorite field of all time.”

The ultimate test

Glenl Wear has a picture behind his campus desk dated Sept. 7, 2013. The image is of LES surrounded by ominous black clouds with people running from the stands in the pouring rain just before the BYU-Texas football game.

For Wear, it was his first night as BYU’s director of grounds.

“I hadn’t seen anything like that,” Wear said. “We had seen big storms before, but that one was different — nothing with that kind of water.”

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As lightning bolts illuminated the sky, the clouds opened and dropped an inch and a quarter of rain in 45 minutes, sending hundreds of thousands of gallons of water pouring from the stadium seats onto the field.

“It was coming off so fast that it wasn’t just running off the front apron of the stands, it was shooting off like a waterfall,” Wear said. “We went out with our brooms to try and keep the drains clear.”

The drainage system under and around the field was stressed but worked to near perfection. When the game started, after a two-hour lightning delay, there was little indication that a storm had come at all — except for thousands of soaked students.

“It was an immense sense of relief that we had done our homework and built it right. The field did exactly what it was designed to do,” Wear said. “Especially when you consider everything was done in-house, within the grounds department and in consultation with scientists who provided invaluable input.”

As a testimonial to the field structure and its natural grass, Taysom Hill and the Cougars rushed for 550 yards and four touchdowns in a 40-21 storming of the No. 15 Longhorns. But even as the teams departed, the field remained hard at work.

“We checked the drains after the game and there was still a steady flow of water coming through the system,” Wear said.

Keeping it real

Even as Larry H. Miller Field boasts a synthetic baseball surface with underground heaters across the street, the surface at LES will remain natural grass, so long as Tom Holmoe is the athletic director.

“Grass is tradition,” Holmoe said. “It’s safer. It feels right. Some other AD will have to switch to artificial turf. Not me.”

The debate over grass and turf is void of a conclusion, but both beat playing in the street.

“I love the game so much I don’t mind playing on turf too,” said Sitake. “I’ll play the game on anything. I played it on the street in our neighborhood. I’ve played it on grass, in the mud, in parking lots, it doesn’t matter. The game is so fun, I’ll play on any surface — but there is nothing like the grass.”

The Cougars have a final week of spring practice and all summer to get ready for the season opener against Sam Houston. BYU’s grounds crew will do the same and come Sept. 2, LES will showcase a battlefield of freshly cut green grass striped with bright white paint, just like always, but with one significant addition — a Big 12 logo for all to see.

Lavell Edwards Stadium at Brigham Young University in Provo on Wednesday, Sept 21, 2022.
Lavell Edwards Stadium at Brigham Young University in Provo on Wednesday Sept 21, 2022. LES is the only remaining college stadium with natural grass in Utah. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.