Heads Up program makes efforts to change the violent nature of football

(Robert Rigo/Amherst Wire)

(Robert Rigo/Amherst Wire)

by Kaitlin Boyer

Jennifer Blair has had the concussion discussion before. Her husband, who played football his entire life, eventually had to stop because he suffered from too many. When it came time to decide whether or not she would let her son, Donovan, play, she was at a crossroads. Should she let her son pursue his dreams and play, or keep him safe with the growing knowledge surrounding head injuries in football?

“I knew going into this that there is always a chance,” Blair said. “But, doing it the way we are now, there is such less of a chance of head injury that I felt comfortable. I felt okay with it and I feel like the coaches are aware and they don’t put your children in a situation where something could happen.”

This method that Blair, president of the South Hadley Youth Football Association, speaks of is called Heads Up Football.

This initiative, started by USA Football in 2012 and sponsored by the National Football League, teaches a special tackling model that aims to take the head out of the game. The program is an effort to change the violent culture within the sport. It also teaches proper equipment fitting and heat and hydration guidelines.

Concussions and head injuries have put football under attack. The hits, the tackles, and the helmet-to-helmet contact are setting players up for long-term damage to their bodies. The NFL found itself deep in a lawsuit right before the start of the 2013 season, a lawsuit that argued that the NFL concealed information linking football to direct brain damage. The league reached a settlement of $765 million, agreeing to pay those players affected.

In South Hadley, from as early as third grade, players are learning this new, and supposedly safer, method. Both the youth and high school levels of football in South Hadley are Heads Up certified.

Heads Up Football: What does it teach?

Scott Taylor, the varsity head coach at South Hadley High School, heard about the program from Kevin Brown, a master trainer from Missouri, and the two stayed in touch. Six months later, Taylor had applied through USA Football to be a master trainer himself and was flown out for training in March to Indianapolis, home of USA Football. He says that while most people associate Heads Up with just tackling, it’s a “comprehensive education model.”

It has five components: education and certification, equipment fitting, concussion recognition and awareness, heat and hydration training curriculum, and Heads Up tackling.

The breakdown position is one of the key components taught through the tackling module. This position prepares the body before it starts moving and makes contact. The player’s feet are spread shoulder width apart while the shoulder blades are squeezed to keep the back flat and in line. By squeezing his shoulders, a player will set up his body with his head out of the picture. The head is up and alert rather than down in an area where it is most vulnerable for injury. He then sinks his body down by bending the knees and lowering the waist, and bringing the hands to the front, ready to move.

“Everything’s balanced, everything’s ready to go, chest is open through the shoulder blades through the squeeze portion of the breakdown,” Taylor said.

Heads Up then teaches players to “buzz the feet” or bring their footwork into control before making a tackle.

Players work to the moment of impact, or the “hit” position. Hips are down and shoulder blades are squeezed, preparing players to shoulder strike tackle. The Heads Up term “shoulder strike tackle” teaches players to aim for contact above the knees but below the chin.

Lastly, players are now ready to “shoot,” open their hips to create power, and “rip,” the upper body motion where players throw double upper cuts.

This positioning that Heads Up enforces sets the body up for a rising blow, taking the focus off any helmet-to-helmet contact.

Lou Gaston, a local firefighter and volunteer coach, became involved with Heads Up in the youth league when he heard South Hadley was offering the opportunity. He realized that changing the violence in the sport is going to be a process.

“It’s going to take more than one year,” Gaston said. “By the time the third and fourth graders are in seventh and eighth, it’s going to be a natural thing for them. It will just be a part of their whole game process, their techniques.”

Brian Couture, a coach at both the high school and youth league in South Hadley, has played football his whole life. But when he played, coaches didn’t know about the dangers of head injuries in the sport.

“When I played, it was “bite the ball,” “put your head into him,” and the old school “wrap up” get your arms nice and wide,” Couture said. “And when you do that your chest goes down, your head goes down.” This is when players set themselves up for harm.

The Certification Process

The Heads Up certification process is a combination of both classroom and on-the-field training. Both the youth and high school programs are certified in Heads Up.

“Three quarters of the class is in classroom, discussing hydration, proper techniques, concussions. The other quarter is on the field, doing what we’re going to teach the kids. This is how you’re going to teach the coach. And we make all the trainers go through that,” Couture said.

Couture says the feedback from the community has been great and more importantly, proactive.

Blair said that it was great to see the parents come out to the parent’s clinic that was held and go through the drills to get a feeling for what the boys learn. They were able to get an understanding of the proper way to drop, how to tackle, and what not to do. She said this was key in helping parents understand that the sports is “a lot safer than it used to be.”

Also, a parent who works as a concussion specialist at the Raymond Center in South Hadley, comes to the training sessions to provide information and insight on concussions.

Pierre Rouzier, head physician for sports medicine at UMass Amherst uses a circular ball filled with glitter and water to help explain concussions. Shaking the ball, the glitter disperses everywhere. This is the brain when it is shaken up, when it is concussed at the moment of impact.

“There’s trauma. Boom, you hit the front part of your brain, the front part of your head and your brain hits another part of the back of your skull,” Rouzier said.

“Essentially your brain is like a big bowl of jello inside a hard case and that jello is shaking.”

Rouzier explained that despite all the research, there is no substitute for rest and patience. He says that there is no medicine to take to help this and that it’s key for injured players and coaches to have patience.

“There’s now a group of people thinking that you shouldn’t play tackle football until you are 14. And, I don’t know what the lower age group should be but I probably believe that. Any sport where you purposely line up and have head smashing into each other isn’t good for your health.”

While the future remains uncertain, Heads Up is a program trying to make the sport safer.

But there’s still one question that parents, coaches and players face, even with the training: Is there a way to truly make the game safer?

While Blair’s son has never had a concussion, he was involved in a collision in the last game of the season and was checked and cleared by doctors.

Blair remains conflicted about her son’s future in the sport and does not know if she will let her son play in high school.
“It’s not due to anything besides just him and his body,” Blair said. “He is just a very small kid and I don’t know if he can handle that part of it. I’ll let him try if he wants to because I don’t want to hold him back. We’ve had this discussion. He plays lacrosse, indoor and outdoor. He’s been hit, he’s been taken down before. I just don’t know.”

Kaitlin Boyer can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @Kaitlin_Boyer.

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