Football: Tackling the issue of player safety at the youth/scholastic level

Football: Tackling the issue of player safety at the youth/scholastic level

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — A giant music speaker bellowed out classic rock tunes like the Doors’ “L.A. Woman” as the Westerly High football team conducted a preseason practice on the quad in front of the school and next to Augeri Field.

“The music helps get young people’s attention and keeps them focused,” Bulldogs coach Duane Maranda said. “When you see a kid today, he or she has an earphone plugged in listening to music.”

The old-school music served as a contrast to Westerly’s new wave of practice techniques that emphasize player safety. In the wake of national concerns about football-related head injuries, along with the documented dwindling participation rate at all levels, most scholastic and youth football programs and state football administrators have made player safety a priority.

Some feel the sport of football is taking a public-relations beating (pardon the pun).

In 2013, the NFL paid $765 million to settle a class-action lawsuit to pay former players affected by and to fund studies on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a brain disease caused by repeated head trauma.

In 2015, the movie “Concussion” raised awareness of football player brain injuries caused by concussions.

In recent years, a handful of young NFL players have retired due to concerns over CTE.

An ESPN football analyst quit his job over concerns about football head injuries.

“There has been a lot of negative news about the current state of football, with the head injuries being a leading concern,” Maranda said. “But I believe the benefits of playing on a football team far outweigh any negatives. You will never eliminate injuries, but there is a greater emphasis than ever on player safety.”

Maranda said he and his Westerly assistants became the first Rhode Island coaching staff to become certified in USA Football’s “Heads Up” training in 2016. Joe Ritacco, a Westerly youth football coach, also took the courses, which feature components in concussion recognition and response, heat preparedness and hydration, sudden cardiac arrest, proper-fitting equipment, shoulder tackling and blocking.

Heads Up Football was introduced in 2012 and is now used by more than 7,000 youth and high school programs nationally. Maranda said nearly 20 high school coaching staffs in Rhode Island have become certified since last season.

“I think the Heads Up program is great,” Maranda said. “The Seattle Seahawks were the first NFL team to use these techniques, which basically teach tackling with the shoulder and keeping the head behind. In the old days, you’d see a lot more contact in practice with players lined up 10 yards apart and running into each other in drills. You can’t completely eliminate player-on-player contact, but we do a lot more drills tackling yoga balls and tackling dummies than player against player.”

A.J. Massengale, Stonington High’s 14th-year head coach, has gradually weeded out physical contact between players in practice to the point where there has been no hitting with pads in Bear workouts in the last four years. He said players usually only wear shoulder pads, helmets and shorts, or go without shoulder pads.

“We do not have our kids go full out on each other,” Massengale said. “It may seem counterintuitive to many, but our practices our high tempo, full speed, without the full contact. We try to teach the game through situational-awareness drills and film prep, and we take a similar approach to teaching the game as safely as possible.

Massengale said Stonington has adopted the Pac-12 and Ivy League model of “best practice,” which includes tackle practice on a “Tackle Wheel.” Stonington has four tackle wheels, which are big, padded donut-like wheels that promote players hitting the soft pad with their shoulder with the head outside and arm wrapping inside the hole.

“It promotes safe-tackling skills while greatly minimizing the impact on our kids,” he said. “Practicing the way we do requires great discipline and attention to detail on the part of our players and coaches. Also, developing players have the opportunity to learn in a safe way rather than being thrown into a [player-on-player] situation that isn’t in their best interest.”

Using a yoga ball

A primary Heads Up tackling drill that old coaches Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes could never have imagined centers around the use of a huge yoga ball. Maranda bounces the ball to a charging tackler, who catches the ball against his chest and drives it to the ground.

“The Seahawks were the forerunners in this drill, and it’s a no-brainer,” Maranda said. “It simulates a tackle without using the helmet. Catching the yoga ball makes you keep your head up and make initial contact with the chest and shoulder.”

Federation football rules, which the CIAC and RIIL follow, have legislated a lot of unnecessary roughness and hits against defenseless players out of football. Penalties for spearing, using the crown of the helmet to tackle or ward off a tackler, have been in place for many years. Some recent rules changes have called for penalties and ejections for players “targeting.” The targeting rule protects defenseless players in a variety of situations, such as a player on the ground, a player obviously out of the play, players who are blind-side blocked, a runner in the grasp of an opponent, a kicker and a quarterback after a change of possession..

Ritacco, who coaches Westerly’s U14 youth team in the Southern New England Football Conference, agrees with the change in approach.

“Back when I played, we were taught to hit with the crown of the helmet,” Ritacco said. “Through studies and education about concussion prevention and injuries, the focus is now on getting in good football position and striking with the shoulder and chest. We call it bringing the arms up with a double upper cut and exploding from the waist to use the rest of the body and not the head to make a tackle.”

Coaches agreed the old days of knocking heads in practice are over.

“Making the game of football safer is something I am very passionate about,” Massengale said. “It is our job as coaches to take care of our players and keep their well being at the very top of our list. We continue to learn, but I feel we are taking great measures to take care of our kids.”


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