How does a small upstart compete against a monopolistic American icon?

Inside the front office of just about every NFL team, there is one person whose sole job it is to worry about the football field. In Dallas that guy is Kevin O'Reilly. He thinks about the Cowboys' playing surface so much, he dreams in green.

So when a floppy mat of a new synthetic grass called FieldTurf landed on O'Reilly's desk, he made a mental note: Looks interesting, but just another piece of green plastic. Then, last October, he went to Amarillo for a weekend trip. There he happened to catch a Friday-night high school game being played on a whole field's worth of the stuff he'd previously dismissed.

When O'Reilly arrived at Dick Bivins Stadium, he figured he was in the wrong place. The field was grass. Where was the big rug? O'Reilly walked out of the stands and stepped onto the field. His mind knew it was artificial, but his eyes and feet told him it was grass. Weird.

As the game unfolded, things got only weirder. A halfback flared out for a pass and was hit low by a tackler. The player's feet, rather than grabbing in the man-made turf, went right out from under him just as if he were on real grass. Receivers dived for passes with reckless disregard for the painful prospect of the "turf burn" commonly associated with AstroTurf, the industry standard. The players were wearing an assortment of shoes with no seeming sacrifice in traction. There were even kids out there in sneakers.

O'Reilly was sold. "This stuff is awesome," he now says. "If it was just up to me, we'd have it in here tomorrow."

The Cowboys have three practice fields. O'Reilly figures that if the team put FieldTurf on just one, they'd have to do them all. The players would flock to the new stuff like penguins to an ice floe and shun the other two. "The risk of injury on it is much, much, much less," he says.

Cut to the 1960s. Like a lot of the phenomena that made that decade so noble and eccentric, AstroTurf's appearance on the gridiron was a marvelous accident. In Houston, Judge Roy Hofheinz built the world's "eighth wonder": the Astrodome, a summer field on which it would never rain. There was just one glitch: when part of the dome was painted over to reduce glare on the field, the grass couldn't grow.

No problem. Chemical colossus Monsanto had already brewed up the perfect solution: a man-made grass substitute first used on urban playgrounds. Made from the miracle substance nylon, it was as tough as nails and provided a no-muss, no-fuss playing surface. So tidy a product it was that none other than America's number one crime fighter -- J. Edgar Hoover himself -- laid it down in his front yard as the remedy for a lawless lawn.

But some believe that like Cheez Whiz and Laugh-In, AstroTurf has outlived its novelty. The sheen is wearing off the leisure suit of sports. In a 1995 survey of 965 NFL players, 93% said they believed AstroTurf caused more injuries than grass. That year Ki-Jana Carter, a highly touted (first draft pick) Cincinnati Bengals running back, went down on AstroTurf with a knee injury. Asked what he would do with all the domed stadiums in America, he replied, "Bomb 'em."

Kevin O'Reilly's Dallas Cowboys are taking a hard look at their synthetic fields because the fields have been hard on them. That concern was heightened in the fourth game last year, when Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin had his head slammed into the turf at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, reputedly the hardest rug in the league. The blow nearly paralyzed Irvin. His was one of at least six significant turf-related injuries the Cowboys suffered last year.

In the second game of the 1999 season, Atlanta Falcons star running back Jamal Anderson suffered a "noncontact" knee injury -- no other player touched him; it was just Anderson and the turf. The Falcons had gone to the Super Bowl last year. This past fall they went down the chute, losing five of their first six games. Ditto the Jets. After the rug took out both quarterback Vinny Testaverde and wide receiver Wayne Chrebet, the team lost six of its first seven games. The Giants Stadium management later announced it would cover its AstroTurf field with grass, at a cost of $4 million -- and $500,000 a year in upkeep.

Anybody who has a lawn will tell you that grass is expensive to care for. So when NFL teams are so desperate to replace AstroTurf that they're willing to spend millions on the real stuff, it creates a big opportunity for someone with something new. The moment seems right for the maker of FieldTurf -- if it can sell the idea that its product really is the next big thing.

FieldTurf is a blend of synthetic fibers woven into a carpet filled with layers of sand for stability and ground-up rubber for resilience. It is made by FieldTurf Inc., a heretofore speck of a company based in Montreal that was founded in 1988 as SynTenniCo, a maker of synthetic playing surfaces for tennis and other uses. Last year its revenues reached $19 million, up from a mere $1.3 million in 1997. That was the year FieldTurf broke through with its first U.S. outdoor sales, a football field at a high school outside Pittsburgh and a soccer facility in Portland, Oreg.