Outdoor conditions draw complaints from Vikings, Bears players
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The prospect of winter football's return to Minnesota -- the mountains of snow, the vapor of exhaled breath, the courageous fans braving the elements -- sounds great to the NFL.
But the fabled frozen tundra of the pre-Metrodome days doesn't sound nearly as good to the Vikings and Bears, who say the league may be downplaying the injury risk of a rock-hard field at TCF Bank Stadium for Monday night's game even as labor negotiations include a proposal for a longer season.
"The whole season has been talked about -- player safety, player safety, player safety," Vikings linebacker Ben Leber said Thursday. "We're talking about going to 18 games. And then they're going to say, 'Hey, go play on some concrete and enjoy yourselves.' If that's the surface we have to play on, then we'll play it. But I think those things need to be addressed."
Hours earlier, the NFL said the University of Minnesota's outdoor stadium remained its preferred venue for a game displaced by the Metrodome's snow-damaged roof. Heating coils under a tarpaulin will be used in a bid to thaw the artificial grass field at TCF Bank Stadium at least a bit for a night game expected to be played in single-digit temperatures.
"We are planning on playing here," NFL VP Eric Grubman said as dozens of workers worked nearby to clear snow and ice from the stadium. "If we can't, at that point we'll figure out what we'll do next."
Grubman called football a "cold-weather sport" and noted that several other NFL teams including Buffalo and Kansas City play in outdoor stadiums with no heating systems to keep their fields warm.
Grubman was in Minneapolis to tour the university stadium, which he described as "terrific" after laying eyes on it. He also looked at the Metrodome, where repair work was temporarily halted because of unsafe conditions four days after the roof collapsed under the weight of snow and ice -- an accident that forced the Vikings to play this week's game in Detroit (a loss to the Giants) and a lot of scrambling to figure out the logistics for the NFC North game against Chicago.
Grubman declined to talk about backup plans or deadlines for a final decision because, he said, they wouldn't come into play unless TCF is deemed unsuitable. He said ESPN, the game's broadcaster, had signed off on TCF Bank Stadium and team officials in Indianapolis and Atlanta both said they had not heard from the NFL about hosting the game.
The plan, however, isn't exactly going over well with every player.
Bears safety Chris Harris said he understood why the Vikings want to play their home finale in Minnesota "but at the end of the day you've got to be safe."
"The NFL is cracking down on all this player safety and fining people $75,000, $50,000 for a hit because they want the game to be safer," Harris said. "I don't think it's very safe to play on a frozen field."
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who suffered a concussion in a game earlier this season, said the condition of the field was "the main concern with the guys in the locker room."
"We don't want to go out there and play on a concrete-type surface," Cutler said.
University officials said they planned to use a tarp over heating coils to soften the field before the game, which will come on the 29th anniversary of the Vikings' last home game played outside at Metropolitan Stadium in 1981.
A spokesman for the NFL Players Association said the union will monitor the issue and that "the health and safety of our players is paramount," director of communications Carl Francis said.
Bears kicker Robbie Gould, the team's union representative, said no formal complaint was planned.
"There will be no protest," he said. "The bottom line is as players we want to make sure that it's a safe environment to play in. So as long as the environment is safe and the conditions for the field are safe, then obviously the show must go on."
Rookie Vikings quarterback Joe Webb, who may start the game, said he hasn't played in freezing conditions before.
"They say we play at that Minnesota stadium, you're just going to have to live with it," said Webb, who played college ball at Alabama-Birmingham. "If God wants to change the weather on me, then that would be fine, too."
Leber said the Vikings will stay a home-field advantage of sorts.
"But it is kind of funny that it's been such a big deal this year about player safety then this issue comes up and I think it's kind of getting swept under the rug a little bit," he said.
TCF Bank Stadium seats 50,000 fans, which means about 14,000 ticket-holders could be out of luck on Monday night. The Vikings said ticket-holders would be seated on a first-come, first-served basis until the stadium is full. No alcohol will be served.
Vikings marketing executive Steve LaCroix said the team expected some ticket-holders to stay away due to the cold. The team set a Saturday deadline for people to turn in tickets for refunds to give them an idea of Monday's likely crowd.
LaCroix said there's also room for about 2,000 fans to stand in an open area on the stadium's west end, meaning they'd be about 12,000 seats short if every ticket-holder showed up.
"We think it's going to be great. It's nighttime football, it's going to be freezing cold temperatures, it's going to be very memorable," he said.
The university offered volunteers $10 per hour to help clear snow at its stadium. They were so overwhelmed with the response Thursday morning that school officials put out word that no more shovelers were needed for the day.
At the Metrodome, officials halted repair work until they could resolve what director of facilities and engineering Steve Maki called "an unsafe situation" after a fourth panel gave way Wednesday night He said there was concern that still more panels could collapse under snow and ice still sitting atop the deflated roof.
Maki said there was no estimate yet of how long the repair work would take or how much it would cost, but officials were still hoping they could simply repair the damaged panels instead of replacing the entire roof.
The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which manages the dome, voted to approve an initial $1.5 million for repairs though the final bill is expected to be much larger.
AP sports writers Dave Campbell in Eden Prairie, Minn., and Michael Marot in Indianapolis, and AP freelance writer Gene Chamberlain in Lake Forest, Ill., contributed to this report.