Is The Tenney Stadium Turf Responsible for ACL Injury Concerns?

Editor’s Note: This feature was written in May by Max Zart, a redshirt junior on the Marist football team. Any figures regarding ACL injuries at Marist were as of May 2023; Marist athletic department officials were provided an opportunity to update their comments to reflect the current situation.

Inside the Center for Physical Therapy at Marist College, athletes and regular students alike go through the process of rehabilitating their various injuries in the comfort of their own campus. 

It’s a humble room, located up the stairs near the entrance of the McCann Recreation Center, where physical therapists from the main office in Wappingers Falls visit campus three days a week throughout the school year. In the past year, the center has become a living diorama of sorts, providing full visualization of the year-long recovery process for an injury that has become commonplace within Marist athletics. 

The injury in question? The dreaded ACL tear, a phrase spoken with fear by even the most seasoned of athletes. ACL tears have been a consistent presence among Marist athletes over the past year and have become the most common ailment treated by physical therapists. 

Red Foxes at all stages of their ACL recovery flood the center each day; some are preparing for their return-to-sport test while others reminisce about what it was like to stand up and walk unassisted. They can be recognized, if not for their limp, by a thin red bracelet that reads “Marist ACL Club,” a souvenir made for each injured athlete by physical therapist Sinjin Wightman as a sign of solidarity through their recovery process. 

“There’s been so many of these types of injuries recently that I figured it was worth making something for it,” said Wightman. “I think we’re about halfway through the first batch of [bracelets] at this point, so I might have to get more printed soon.”

Physical therapist Sinjin Wightman has made red “ACL Club” bracelets for Marist athletes who have suffered ACL injuries. (Photo Credit: Max Zart)

The ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, is a critical piece of an athlete’s anatomy that acts as the main stabilizer in the knee. The ligament absorbs the shock from sudden stops and changes of direction that are key across all sports. 

Injuries to the ACL are usually accompanied by a number of other issues as well, including tears to other ligaments, meniscus damage, or fractures in the femur or tibia. Most people can do just fine in their everyday life without their ACL, but an athlete cannot. 

For an athlete, the ligament must be reconstructed through surgery by harvesting a graft from another muscle in the leg and placing it where the original ligament once was. The full recovery for such an operation ranges anywhere from seven months to a year, bringing an abrupt end to one’s season, or even their career. 

ACL injuries commonly occur through forceful contact to the leg, causing the knee to bend in a way that it isn’t supposed to. Sometimes, an athlete’s movement can generate enough force to rupture the ligament on its own. 

The second method of injury, known as a non-contact injury, is the form most commonly seen at Marist; especially from athletes who play at Tenney Stadium. The stadium, which houses an artificial turf field, has become a cause for alarm for many athletes who fear they may become its next victim. 

Chance Hendricks, a junior midfielder on the Marist Women’s Soccer team, is a recent graduate of the ACL club. Her injury was non-contact related and occurred on the Tenney Stadium turf during a routine drill that the team does during nearly every practice. 

“We were doing a drill and I made a move that I had probably done a million times,” said Hendricks. “I felt my foot sort of get caught under the ball and I just heard this crack. I went down and couldn’t really get up after that.” 

She had surgery the following month and began the long road to recovery. 

“I remember waking up after my surgery and I immediately started crying because I was in so much pain,” said Hendricks. “It felt like knives were going in and out of my knee for like five days. I was in constant pain.” 

For weeks after her surgery, Hendricks was on crutches and was unable to go upstairs, so she had to sleep in a chair in her living room. A Division I athlete who started as a freshman had to have her parents sleep on the floor beside her, knowing that if she needed something during the night, she would not be able to get it herself. 

Despite the early suffering after her surgery, Hendricks would eventually make a full recovery. She was cleared to return to soccer this past spring, over a full year since she first sustained her injury on the Tenney Stadium turf. While she may be healed physically, she now faces the psychological barrier of returning to the game that caused her so much pain. 

“I feel totally different now,” said Hendricks. “It’s just something that’s always in the back of my head and I’m nervous if someone is going to hit me or if I make one wrong move and tear it again.” 

Hendricks will be back on the field for her team’s fall season. But oftentimes at Marist, when one athlete gets cleared, another one takes their place. Since Hendricks in 2022, at least 10 more Marist athletes have had confirmed ACL tears, seven of which are on the football team. The most recent inductee into the Marist ACL club was Noah Abida, a sophomore linebacker. His injury was also non-contact.

“It was during a scrimmage and I was about to go make a tackle,” said Abida. “I planted down with my left leg and heard it pop. It was just a movement thing. My cleat got stuck in the turf and my knee got twisted.” 

The stories are eerily similar; a routine drill or a play that an athlete has made countless times throughout their career ends with a planted cleat on the Tenney Stadium turf and a pop in their knee despite it being a non-contact play. 

Suspicions of artificial turf leading to injuries are nothing new. In recent years, the NFL has seen significant pushback from notable players like Nick Bosa and Odell Beckham Jr., who argued that artificial turf played a role in their lower body injuries.

Bosa and Beckham each tore their ACL in 2020. After completing a successful rehabilitation, Beckham Jr. tore his ACL a second time in Super Bowl LVI the following season. Both Bosa’s injury and Beckham’s second injury were non-contact related, and all three injuries occurred on artificial turf.

As a result, the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) now conducts a yearly study that compares lower body injury rates on grass and artificial turf. Data released by the NFLPA in April revealed that last season, the non-contact lower body injury rate on artificial turf was almost 27 percent higher than on natural grass. 

The higher injury rate is a result of the difference in traction between the two playing surfaces. A grass field has the ability to give away below an athlete, absorbing much of the energy that they exert into the ground. A turf field is far less pliable, causing much of the energy from a planted foot to be redirected into an athlete’s body, which is then absorbed by their joints and ligaments. 

Despite the substantially higher risk of injury on artificial turf, less than two percent of NFL players tear their ACL each season. The Marist football team currently has 80 players, putting the ACL injury rate at just below nine percent. With the injury rate this high on the football team alone, Marist athletes are well aware of the risk that their turf field poses to them. 

“It’s tough because so many of us have torn [ACLs] on our turf here,” said Hendricks. “Our turf is not the best turf. It’s matted down and shared by so many different teams. It has to be a contributing factor to there being so many knee injuries here.” 

NFL turf fields that are played on once a week for five months at a time showed a 27 percent higher risk of lower body injuries. Tenney Stadium is shared between 10 Division I and club sports that practice and play on the turf field virtually year-round. Mounds of rubber filling can be seen lining the sidelines, where years of wear and tear have pushed the field’s cushioning agent far off its playing surface. 

Despite these potential warning signs, the Marist athletic department has shown little sense of urgency in regard to the issue.

Jeff Carter, the assistant athletic director of sports medicine at Marist, acknowledged that the turf may play a role in injuries, but cited other issues with biomechanics and strength and conditioning that he feels are more pressing than the turf when it comes to injury prevention.

“There’s research that shows that ACL tears can be a result of a tight tunnel in the femur,” said Carter. “So some of it can really be out of anyone’s control. The weight room plays a large role in it, too. Athletes should work with their strength coaches to build functional strength in the lower extremity to help avoid these kinds of issues.”

While Carter downplayed the injury risk presented by the field, Tim Murray, the Marist athletic director, was completely unaware of the increased injury risk on turf fields prior to being interviewed. 

“I really haven’t seen a whole lot of research or data specifically about [artificial turf],” said Murray. “It hasn’t been widely distributed if it’s out there.” 

Prior to the stadium’s renovation in 2006, it was home to a natural grass field. Murray stated, though, that he feels the turf field is safer for Marist athletes than the original grass was since the strain put on a turf field with the school’s expanded athletic, club, intramural, and recreational programs could not be done on a natural grass field. 

“There was a huge difference,” said Murray. “I think there was a far greater risk of injury with our grass field because of the demand that was placed on it.”

Murray showed full support for the turf field at Marist, feeling that its increased durability and longevity make it better suited for use at Marist than a grass field would be. At the same time, he noted that the cost of the two types of fields would be similar for the college since the cost of installing a turf field matches the cost of repairing a grass field over time. He also ensured that the athletic department does everything it can to keep the turf field in playing condition throughout the year. 

This fall, many Marist athletes will return to Tenney Stadium for their football and soccer seasons. Chance Hendricks will return to the playing surface that ended her junior season. Noah Abida will watch from the sidelines as he works toward being able to run, cut, and tackle again. 

As the Marist athletic department continues to support the existing turf field, concerns will continue to linger over whether the playing surface has contributed to these ACL injuries.

Edited By Marley Pope, Luke Sassa and Dan Aulbach

Photo Credit: Marist Athletics

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