When the ball is kicked off on Sept. 10, the Plant Panthers will race down a football field designed or installed by companies that worked on the playing surfaces of the Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers and the universities of Colorado and Oklahoma State.
Giving a public school such luxurious carpet might seem like handing a kid with a driver's permit the keys to a Ferrari 599 GTB.
But Plant isn't the stereotypical public high school program with a shoestring budget and hand-me-down uniforms. It's a state powerhouse program that, last season, won its third state football title in four years. It has a devoted, wealthy and politically connected following of alumni and fans ensconced in well-to-do South Tampa.
They were behind an exclusively private fundraising effort that raised $600,000 for Plant High's Dad's Stadium, which is currently being fitted with a synthetic field from Desso Sports Systems, a worldwide company that has designed surfaces for World Cup stadiums and NFL franchises.
Known as the "D-Vision" line of turf, Plant's new surface is not the spiky, green stuff of welcome mats or the yarnlike shag carpeting of the '70s. It's high-tech monofilament that feels real and "skin friendly" for slides and tackles. The D-Vision line was designed with the help of the University of Ghent and the Flemish government of Belgium, according to the company's website.
Plant defensive backs coach Bo Puckett maintains that the new field isn't a luxury but a necessity that benefits the entire student body.
"Not only did we establish an athletic need for it but there's an academic benefit also," Puckett said, noting that physical education classes and kickball squads will use the field.
The school band and soccer and girls flag football teams will grace the turf, too. Corralled by houses and businesses that line busy Dale Mabry Highway, the school has limited field space and no practice fields.
Frequent foot traffic combined with Florida's rapid, repeated rains often turned the stadium's former grass field into a Woodstock mud pit.
Besides ankle twists and knee injuries from slipping and sliding, the muddy conditions posed another health risk. In 2007, seven athletes and Puckett came down with ringworm, Puckett said.
"It was getting downright dangerous," he said. "It was a huge need."
With the recession drying up public funds, Plant turned to alumni, fans and parents during a broad fundraising campaign.
"The key to get anything done in your community is to mobilize people for a great need," said Puckett, who also coaches girls flag football. "There was not just one person who made a difference in this situation."
Other well-endowed high school programs in other football-crazed regions such as South Florida and Texas have similar fields. In Tampa Bay, private Jesuit High School is the only other prep program with a similar surface.
Plant's field is being installed by 1st Turf, a 14-year-old Tampa company that plants grass and artificial turf fields across the nation, and is expected to be done sometime in August. It's a complex process that involves digging out Plant's former field 3 feet deep, leveling the surface, installing corrugated piping wrapped with felt, spreading a layer of gravel, turf and ground rubber to give the surface cushioning and bounce.
It's an investment that's worth it for Plant, 1st Turf president Mike McGraw said.
"We find that it's fairly common to spend between $40,000 and $70,000 a year to maintain a good (grass) field and try and keep it in good condition," he said. "You still reach a point if you overuse it, you have to resod it and let it recover and most schools don't have the time to do that."
The Panthers will play two away games before their first home game on the new field Sept. 10 against Hillsborough High School.
While the turf was technologically engineered to resemble and feel like the finest grass field, there is one drawback.
The temperature on synthetic fields averages between 10 and 15 degrees more than grass fields. Puckett said Plant will try and lower the temperature by spraying the field with water cannons on hot days.
But that can create more humidity, increasing what McGraw calls the "misery index" for players.
Which might be the only solace for rival high school football teams, green with envy.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]