Sal Machese has been the “bull in the ring.” Tom Lake has too.
When the two current high school football coaches laced up their cleats during their playing days, they were subjected to one of the most physical drills of the last 75 years.
Standing in a circle of their peers, they’d hear numbers shouted out, and one by one, their teammates would head full bore at them. The goal was to react to the charging player before getting smacked.
Marchese’s view of the drill has tempered over time.
“That’s stupidity,” recalled Marchese, Delsea Regional’s coach. “That’s one kid you’re going to get hurt. That doesn’t teach you how to tackle. That doesn’t teach you fundamentals. That’s nonsense.”
Football practice has drastically changed over the last several decades.
For years, coaches looked at practices as ways of toughening their kids up and getting them ready for a physical game. But as the years went on, fundamentals became more important and player safety came to the forefront.
Today, coaches are as cautious with their kids as they ever have before.
“It’s not just going out and beating each other up,” said Lake, Cumberland Regional’s coach. “I think there’s a lot more purpose behind hitting, there’s (just) less of it.”
“It’s amazing,” former Millville coach Tony Surace said, “the whole mentality of football has evolved … for the better.”
Surace started playing midget football in the 1950s, and by the late 1960s he became a coach at Millville.
In both his playing days and the early part of his coaching career, Surace said all drills, especially contact ones, were designed around building toughness.
“We will make kids that aren’t so tough, tough,” Surace said, describing the mentality back then.
John Pierantozzi, who coached Vineland from the late 1960s to 1989, remembers watching Holy Spirit run the “bull in the ring” drill before a game, and seeing one of the Spartans’ backs get hurt.
“I never forgot that,” Pierantozzi said. “That was an unbelievable event that happened during a game. It proved to me that some of the things we did were not good.”
Both Pierantozzi and Surace scaled back contact in practices later in their careers, but there was always physicality. Instead of trying to develop toughness though, they focused harder on technique.
One way to accomplish that was “thud” — a drill where players hit each other, but didn’t bring anyone to the ground.
“Instead of getting full speed contact, you are going to the point of contact and you let up,” Surace said of thud. “You are going to form a tackle, and form a block, and definitely the player is going to get to position, but not play it 100 percent live.”
It wasn’t a big part of Surace or Pierrantozzi’s practices, but it began to grow over the years.
Lake uses it in his practices.
“Everybody still loves a big hit, but you want it done properly and safely,” he said. “You send kids home a little bumped, a little bruised, maybe a little sweaty, but you want to get them home safely.”
Lake isn’t concerned about toughening his players up. He wants to make sure they’re able to make it to game night, and are capable of keeping themselves safe on the gridiron.
Buena coach Jonathan Caputo is the same way.
“You can practice tackling and stuff with angles and form and that kind of stuff, instead of bringing people to the ground,” he said. “We rarely bring people to the ground.”
However, some coaches still believe physical practices are the way to go.
Keeping an edge
Vineland coach Josh Hedgeman isn’t a thud guy.
“I’m not a fan of thud in high school because kids don’t know how to do thud,” he said. “I found out more kids get hurt going thud then they do going ahead live because what happens is the kids … don’t understand how to keep each other up. They don’t understand how to stay off the ground.”
While Hedgeman admits practices during his playing days (1985-1994 with Schalick and Rutgers) may have been a little more rough and tumble, he makes sure the Fighting Clan stay physical in practice.
“I don’t know how you play a contact sport and don’t do contact,” he said.
Hedgeman believes it’s crucial to simulate game situations to keep his team prepared. The key to his method is rep limitation.
“For me it’s like baseball, a pitch count, I count the number of reps we’re going to do (live), and that’s it, but they have to be able to have that type of speed,” he said.
Marchese has a similar point of view.
“We have a philosophy that you have to hit to a degree,” he said, adding later, “it just seems when we don’t hit, it seems like the kids’ intensity and their movements and everything they do is slower. When we hit, the kids move faster and I think they go 100 percent. As soon as we say ‘thud,’ everybody kind of relaxes … and I think you have to get used to game speed a little bit.”
Their physical practices don’t indicate Hedgeman and Marchese aren’t concerned with players suffering injuries, they say it’s the No. 1 priority.
However, they, along with other area coaches, know that even with all types of preventive measures being taken to protect players, there’s still a risk involved.
“The sport of football is a contact sport,” Marchese said.