Vahe Gregorian

Appropriately enough, last Chiefs game at Oakland will be in the dirt

Chiefs prepare to play on Oakland’s dirt infield

Chiefs coordinators Eric Bieniemy and Dave Toub, wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and kicker Harrison Butker are preparing to play on a baseball infield Sunday at the Raiders. The kickers made a trip to Kauffman Stadium this week for practice.
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Chiefs coordinators Eric Bieniemy and Dave Toub, wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and kicker Harrison Butker are preparing to play on a baseball infield Sunday at the Raiders. The kickers made a trip to Kauffman Stadium this week for practice.

If you’re of a certain age or have spent some time watching vintage NFL Films footage, part of the literal and figurative foundation of your memories of the pro game are rooted in dirt. And we don’t mean just the quaint notion of plays drawn up on the spot.

One of the quirks and consequences and fascinating charms of the long history of multipurpose stadiums was the spectacle of a baseball diamond protruding over the middle of the gridiron. As if it were somehow just an inherent part of the game.

Not so much anymore, though.

When the Chiefs play Sunday at the Oakland-Alameda County Stadium (technically now the RingCentral Coliseum, but … come on), the game won’t just represent the Chiefs’ last game at Oakland — 50 years after the final season of the AFL that was underscored by their bitter rivalry.

It also will make for the end of another era: the final NFL game played on a field ornamented by a dirt infield. The Raiders won’t play again at the home they share with the Oakland Athletics until Nov. 3 (after the baseball season) and will move to Las Vegas next year.

In some ways, it’s a novelty and point of trivia more than anything else, merely accentuated by the fact that the Chiefs in many recent seasons have played there after the baseball season and thus have not encountered the field in this condition.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, coming off an ankle injury last Sunday at Jacksonville, figures he’ll be able to keep his feet since, heck, he’s played some shortstop. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub reckons it’s more a mental matter than anything else.

And coach Andy Reid said play-calling wouldn’t be affected by having possession in the infield.

“We just call the dirty plays when we’re in the dirt,” joked Reid, of whom it can safely be said wouldn’t tell if he were going to adjust in some way. “But no, we’re OK.”

After all …

“I mean, it’s football; it’s dirt,” said Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who recalled playing in similar circumstances with the San Diego Chargers at then-Jack Murphy Stadium in the early 1990s.

He laughed and added, “I played on old-school (artificial) turf; the dirt was probably a lot softer.”

But the infield, which sweeps from 20-yard-line to 20-yard-line and extends to the middle of the field at the 50, also is a harsh reality. “Stronger than dirt,” as the old Ajax commercial went.

Earlier this week, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Raiders rookie running back Josh Jacobs told reporters in Oakland that the infield “rips jerseys. It literally goes through anything” and that “the ground hurt more than the tackles.”

Or as former Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said in 2017: “Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing to play on the cinderblock.”

In the middle of a field that tends to be slick to begin with.

“There is a low water table there,” Reid said. “So, the turf is a bit slippery, even when you’re on the grass part. You’re aware of that. The guys that haven’t played on the dirt, they’ll get out there in pregame and have a chance to work with that.”

To try to get a head start on that, Chiefs specialists Harrison Butker, Dustin Colquitt and James Winchester made a field trip to Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday to get a feel for it. In what Winchester, the long snapper, estimated was about a 30-minute workout, the trio worked on everything from kickoffs, snaps, field goal attempts, onside kicks and punts from the infield.

“I’ll sleep a little bit better the night before,” said Butker, the Chiefs’ kicker, who brought up the idea and said it brought him some “peace of mind.”

Like Butker and Winchester, Colquitt was grateful to the Royals for accommodating them across the way at the Truman Sports Complex.

“Thanks to the @Royals grounds crew we are ready for the dirt in Oakland!! @Chiefs #inthistogether,” he wrote in a Twitter post that included a couple photos from The K.

Welcome as the farewell to dirt might be for all, it also lends an appropriately earthy touch to the Chiefs’ finale in the stadium built in 1966 that was the site of so many episodes in an often-furious feud.

“Old-school AFC West,” Bieniemy said. “Knuckle up and play ball.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.