Fargo - Tailgating fans today will enjoy the new parking lot west of the Fargodome - a concrete palace just waiting for grills and coolers. Inside at Gate City Bank Field, another parking lot was removed.

It was also known as the old artificial surface.

The new AstroTurf GameDay 3D imitation grass, installed this summer, will make its official debut at 6 p.m. today as North Dakota State opens its football season against Robert Morris (Pa.).

Early reviews are a hit.

The players like the cushier surface, and the head coach says his lower back doesn't hurt after standing on it for a couple of hours. In the arms race of Division I facilities, NDSU is on par with the rest of the country.

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For a former player like Kole Heckendorf, it perhaps was a few years too late.

The standout receiver from 2005-08 had his senior year mulled because of turf toe, an injury to the joint behind the big toe. He didn't practice during the week for the last six games of the season, instead putting the pads on Saturdays after getting an injection to soften the pain.

"You're just thinking, 'Just a toe? Really?' " Heckendorf said this week. "But if that toe is not working right, it affects your whole body, especially a receiver who is planting and cutting on it. It was a rough senior year in many ways."

Heckendorf can't say for certain the old Fargodome turf was the cause of the injury because he's going through the same thing again - only on the opposite toe. He suffered that turf toe on a modern, FieldTurf surface in the last play of a scrimmage while in the Indianapolis Colts camp last season.

He leaped to catch a Hail Mary pass, caught the ball but snapped his toe and ankle when he came down. The ankle came back after a couple of weeks. One year later, he's still rehabilitating the toe.

"It's been a long process," Heckendorf said, saying he had surgery last March. "Now they're saying it will probably be until the middle of October before I get back to 100 percent."

He's currently living in St. Cloud, Minn., and volunteer coaching for the Sauk Rapids High School football team. His agent is not contacting any NFL teams currently, mainly because reaching out to a team with an injured player is not the best plan of attack.

There has been contact with Canadian Football League teams, but the CFL season is winding down. The United Football League is also an option.

Meanwhile, those pesky toes remain an obstacle.

NDSU director of sports medicine Scott Woken said nobody can say for certain that the old Fargodome turf was the cause for toe injuries to Heckendorf and, recently, quarterback Brock Jensen. The Bison junior battled it the last half of last season to the point it appeared to affect his completion percentage.

But Woken also said studies indicate injuries are more prevalent with a harder playing surface. Bohl agreed, saying toe injuries happened more at the dome than anywhere else. Jensen will enter this season with a completely healthy toe and an appreciation for the new surface.

"It's a really soft surface and it will probably be more forgiving for the toe," he said.

The softer surface is a result of technology that meshes an infill of recycled, grounded-up tires into the synthetic turf, which the AstroTurf company touts as mimicking the look and feel of natural grass. The final cost was $2.9 million, with Gate City Bank securing naming rights last fall for $1 million. The rest was paid for by dome reserve funds.

So far, reviews of the upgrade have been glowing, said Rob Sobolik, Fargodome general manager.

"Everything I've heard is extremely positive,' he said.

Like his senior year at NDSU, meanwhile, Heckendorf is back running, but not doing any cutting. He's not sure if he'll get another NFL chance, with a lot of that hinging on his 40-yard dash time when he returns to health.

He joked NDSU receivers will now be more apt to hit the turf to throw a block, now that it's softer.

"That's awesome," he said, then talked about NDSU's national title. "They're continuing the Bison tradition. We didn't have a part in it (last year), but I do think we played a part in it."

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack's NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia

Kolpack is the host of the WDAY Golf Show Saturdays from 8-9 a.m. on 970-AM.