Up until Week 3 of the 2015 NFL season, the playing surface at NRG Stadium was made up of dozens of natural grass pallets, all pieced together every game day like a gigantic puzzle. The system was, at best, clunky, and, at worst, completely unsafe, and while it's finally gone, the old grass surface is most certainly not forgotten.
We were reminded, once again, late last week of the treacherous terrain that NFL players were forced to navigate on game days for more than a dozen years when former Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans filed a lawsuit against a number of parties over a season-ending, non-contact Achilles tendon injury that he suffered as an Eagle in a game against the Texans on November 2, 2014. Ryans did return from the injury in 2015, and played in 14 games for the Eagles, but was significantly less effective. He was released in February 2016, and went unsigned as a free agent.
The lawsuit, which is seeking more than $10 million in damages, names the Texans and the NFL as defendants, along with Harris County Convention Sports Corporation, SMG (the company that manages NRG Stadium), and StrathAyr Turf Systems (the creator of the pallet system on which Ryans was injured). The lawsuit states that, because of the playing surface at NRG Stadium on November 2, 2014, Ryans suffered a torn Achilles tendon that "prematurely ended his noteworthy NFL career." It also states that, without the injury, Ryans would have "in reasonable probability, remained in the league for another five years."
Specifically, the lawsuit claims that, on the day Ryans suffered his injury, "there were points where the seams between the Modules intersected appeared to look like holes filled in with sand. The surface of the field was also inconsistent as some of the Modules were soft, some were firm and the Modules did not fit together well."
Ryans is not the first player to sue over a catastrophic injury caused by the pallet system. As covered extensively here in the Houston Press , former Texans punter Brett Hartmann sued SMG and Harris County in November 2012 following a career-ending knee injury he suffered in 2011 when his foot was allegedly pinned in a groove between two pallets. The two sides reached a settlement in 2015.
Gene Egdorf, a prominent trial attorney for Shrader & Associates, handled Hartmann's lawsuit and settlement, and said that Ryans's case has some differences from Hartmann's.
"On the surface, the two cases are comparable," Egdorf said in an interview on my radio show on SportsRadio 610. "However, there's a big difference between DeMeco's case and the one I handled [for Hartmann] — DeMeco has sued the NFL, and he sued the Texans. We did not do that."
Hartmann didn't sue the Texans because of workman's compensation laws in Texas that forbid suing an employer; however, Ryans, while he is a former Texan, is suing over an injury suffered as an opposing player in NRG Stadium. Ryans is suing the league because of its supposed failure in executing a field inspection policy the NFL instituted after then-Washington Redskin quarterback Robert Griffin III suffered a severe knee injury in a 2013 playoff game in Washington.
"When [Griffin] got hurt, the NFL instituted a new inspection policy for the field where the fields were inspected and approved before every game." Egdorf explains. "The argument made by DeMeco is going to be that the NFL was negligent in certifying [NRG's] field for play. The Texans and SMG are going to say, 'We did the best we could, but the NFL said that it was good to play on; talk to them.'"
Ryans was not the first player to suffer a suspicious, non-contact injury on that field in 2014. Texans outside linebacker and No. 1 overall pick in that year's draft, Jadeveon Clowney, suffered a meniscus injury in the 2014 season opener that caused him to miss all but four games his rookie year. Then-teammate D.J. Swearinger spoke publicly with the media after the game in which Clowney was hurt, saying Clowney told him he was injured after he landed on a "hole" in the turf. Clowney eventually required season-ending microfracture surgery on the knee, and is just now rounding into an impact player, two seasons later.
Still, even after the injury to Clowney, the Texans continued to utilize the grass pallet system in 2014, likely in part because changing it out for field turf at that time would have been a tacit admission of the grass pallets' deficiencies at a time when Hartmann's lawsuit was still open. On that November day of the Eagles-Texans game, the field was in visibly rough shape, with brown patches everywhere.
"That very game I texted you, Sean, and said 'There's gonna be a major injury today, the field is not playable,'" Egdorf recalled. "And sure enough, DeMeco was injured." (This is a true story. Egdorf texted me two hours before that game predicting there would be an injury like the one Ryans suffered that day.)
According to Egdorf, the Texans made their own bed when they were originally making decisions on the playing surface at the time the stadium was built. Continuing with that surface year in and year out, in the face of massive complaints from opposing players and coaches, was, figuratively, a game of Russian roulette being played with the limbs of players.
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"With this field, you have a man-made hazard," Egdorf explained. "[The Texans] went against everything they were originally told with respect to how the field should be, what direction the stadium should face if they want grass...and the chickens finally came to roost, unfortunately for some of these players."
In handicapping Ryans's chances for success with his lawsuit, Egdorf gives the former Texan and Eagle a fighting chance. "The history of what's gone on on that field, the parties being on notice [when the injury took place], those are powerful things on DeMeco's side," Egdorf said.
"He's a popular guy, a good guy, a nice guy...that's all gonna play well, if it goes to trial."
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at
http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.