With several new tackling rules this off-season, the NCAA and the NFL took steps toward eliminating violent hits and head-to-head collisions in an attempt to make football safer.
So how are young players learning about player safety?
The answer, according to local coaches, is close attention to step-by-step instruction in proper tackling and more caution around symptoms of concussions.
In March, the NCAA introduced a rule that, in addition to a 15-yard penalty, players will be ejected for intentionally targeting the head and neck areas of a defenseless player. In the first two weekends of college football, more than 10 players were ejected for violating the rule, including three incidents that were later overturned.
The NFL, also in March, announced that players will be penalized for initiating contact with the crown of their helmet.
In addition, the NFL recently reached a $765 million deal with 4,500 former players who accused the league of hiding the long-term dangers of concussions. Many former players are dealing with brain-related injuries, such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression, as a result of their hard-hitting football careers.
At State College Area High School, head football coach Al Wolski said the coaches teach proper tackling from Day 1.
Using video, Wolski and defensive coordinator Mike Snyder film each player demonstrating proper tackling form and meticulously study the film to ensure each player understands the correct way to wrap up.
“We take five kids and we teach it verbally, and then they demonstrate it,” Wolski said. “It’s all done in slow speed, and it’s taught thoroughly. We watch each game on Monday, and if we see something that we think could be questionable, or something that could lead to injury, then we address it at that point.”
Heads Up Football is a program created by USA Football specifically to teach proper fundamentals and player safety techniques. In the program, proper tackling is broken down into five basic steps: breakdown, buzz, hit, shoot and rip.
First, the player must get into the “breakdown position,” the basic football stance. A player flexes his shoulders and back, squats with his knees bent and puts his hands in front of his chest.
The second position is what coaches call “buzzing the feet.” The tackler shuffles his feet to move toward the ball carrier, making sure he uses proper footwork to keep moving.
Third is the “hit position.” This is the most important because it prepares the player for contact with the ball carrier. The player takes one short, compact step forward with his right foot, bending his knee and lowering his center of gravity. The player’s hands are up by the chest to protect his head and neck.
The fourth position is called “the shoot.” From the crouched “hit position” the player opens his hips as quickly as possible, generating power for the tackle and allowing the player to move toward the ball carrier.
Last is “the rip.” The player puts his knuckles up, elbows down, and uppercuts with both arms. This motion allows the upper body to be the first point of contact, moving the head up and away from the tackle. The contact point is at the top of the chest, or “by the numbers,” protecting the head, neck and spine.
Wolski also stressed the importance of teaching his players to recognize concussion symptoms. Players are told to report all head injuries to any member of the staff, and are then taken through a step-by-step process under the guidance of the training staff.
“Nobody is brought back early,” he said. “They just do an outstanding job of taking time to make sure the player is ready to come back when they’re ready to come back.”
Alison Krajewski, a certified athletic trainer who works on the athletic training staff at State College High, described the process.
“We have a battery of baseline tests that we do, and then once they’re injured we have a test that we can then compare to their baseline,” Krajewski said. “Once an injury has been determined, we do get a doctor involved. The parents have to be notified, the doctors get involved, and the ‘return to play’ process begins once they become symptom-free and they also pass all of their neurocognitive testing.”
The 25-minute computerized quiz is called ImPact Concussion Testing. All players at State College High undergo this testing to ensure proper diagnosis and assistance. According to the school’s website, “this test is administered to 7th, 9th, and 11th graders to establish a cognitive baseline. If a concussion should occur, the ImPACT test is given to the injured person. This is compared to their baseline to determine if there are any neurocognitive deficits.”
“We have a six- to eight-day ‘return to play’ timeline of what they do each day,” Krajewski said. “As long as they remain symptom-free with that day’s activities, then they go to the next set of activities the next day. If they become symptomatic at any point, they have to repeat. We’re not going to move you along if you have symptoms, or if the activity creates symptoms.”
Once they have met the requirements of the “return to play” timeline, the player is taken to the doctor for a final evaluation.
To ensure the safety of even younger players, the State College Assembly of God Boys Developmental Football Program in 2011 became a member of USA Football, the sport’s national governing body, which is associated with the NFL
Now entering its 19th season, the program has more than 200 players between the ages of 6 and 13, 64 coaches and 14 teams.
The program uses USA Football resources, including NFL Films with clips demonstrating sound techniques, computer-animated drills by position and age-appropriate practice planning.
“Four years ago we were using the online coaching education, which is fabulous because it gets everybody on the same page,” Boys Developmental Football Program director John Potter said.
“It teaches not only how to coach football, but there’s tips on health and safety, there’s time management, how to work with the kids of different age groups and ability groups. This Heads Up Football program coming online in the last year is even more beneficial. We can see it as a big improvement,” he said.
In 2012, the Boys Developmental Football Program was selected as one of two pilot programs for Heads Up Football in Pennsylvania.
Under the guidance of USA Football, the Boys Developmental Football Program teaches the four pillars of the Heads Up Football campaign: coaching education, equipment fitting, concussion awareness and Heads Up tackling.
“We’ve gotten very positive feedback, from parents especially, who now have more of an understanding of how everything fits together and what they look for,” Potter said. “It empowers parents with knowledge of how to make it better and how to make it safer.”
Potter said he thinks increased education and understanding of concussions, head injuries and player safety will lead to a bright future for football.
“I think, overall, people are more aware, and I think absolutely as a society people are more concerned. And I think it’s important that information be put in the hands of the players, the parents, the coaches, the officials, league directors,” he said. “With information and great technique, and excellent medical care, it can be a better, safer game.”