The young man stood in an athletic stance, his legs shoulder-width apart, knees bent, back mostly straight. He pretended he was preparing to make a tackle.
D’Ronzjiah Matthews, a senior linebacker at South Fort Myers High School and one of the fiercest tacklers in Southwest Florida, then uttered two words that have been heard in interviews with the 30 varsity high school football coaches in The News-Press coverage area.
“Head up,” Matthews said, standing in the hallway just outside his school’s weight room. “The best way to do that is to look directly at the space between the ball carrier’s numbers.”
A lawsuit filed by former NFL players against the league and the altruistic notion of protecting our teenagers and children from injury have generated more talk about tackling technique than ever.
As more than 1,000 high school football players and even more youth players begin the 2013 season across Southwest Florida, tackling techniques are being refined and even redefined from previous years in order to better protect players from concussions and spinal cord injuries.
“It’s absolutely proven,” said Dr. Bo Kagan, the Bishop Verot High School football team’s physician when asked if better tackling techniques would help reduce head and neck injuries. “When the head is in the down position, it increases the force on the spine. By and large, proper tackling can prevent a big number of injuries.”
But just as wearing a seatbelt will help one in a car accident, proper tackling can only help so much during collisions on a football field, Kagan said.
According to the Sports Concussion Institute, founded in 2005 in order to spread awareness of concussions and how to treat them, 75 percent of football players are at risk to suffer a concussion and 78 percent of concussions occur in games as opposed to practices.
Concussions are brain trauma caused by direct or indirect blows to the head.
Professional football players will receive 900 to 1,500 blows to the head during a season, and fewer than 10 percent of sport-related concussions involve a loss of consciousness, meaning they are difficult to identify by coaches, the institute said.
About 55,000 high school football players suffer concussions nationally each year, or 0.47 concussions per 1,000 players, according to the Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
As for spinal cord injuries, one in 100,000 football players suffer those, with 10 to 12 such injuries happening each year, according to Gridiron Heroes, a non-profit organization founded in 2003 by the father of a high school football player left paralyzed in 2001 from a football injury in Texas.
Andy Ryland, manager of football development for Heads Up, said he hoped the teaching of proper tackling technique would bring down the numbers and seriousness of injuries.
Heads Up, a grassroots division of USA Football, a non-profit organization dedicating to developing football as a safe sport from the youth levels to the pros, has financial backing from the NFL.
“My best, humble opinion is I don’t think there are a lot of people out there teaching dangerous methods and having people deliberately hurt people,” Ryland said. “I think this is more about reinforcement.”
Naples coach Bill Kramer said he has studied the Heads Up terminologies and agrees with them. Kramer said he has taught tackling in a similar way over the course of his 26-year coaching career.
“The concept is, I don’t want a head involved in the tackle,” Kramer said. “It’s been that way for 20 years. We’ve had a media hysteria and feeding frenzy over concussions. It’s time to push back and say that our equipment is better than it has ever been, our coaching techniques have been better than they ever have been, and our training is better than it has ever been.”
Although most high school football coaches have advised their players to keep the crown of the helmet out of any tackles over the past two decades, changes in coaching techniques have been made in recent years.
“We believe in tackling with the shoulder, using the shoulder as the point of contact,” Ryland said. “We want to slide our head out of contact. You don’t want to put your face or any part of the helmet into the line of contact.
“In sliding your head and striking with the shoulder, head and face up, we want your spine in line, meaning you don’t have the head and neck twisted and turned. You want to keep that spine in line with the head.”
The 30 Southwest Florida coaches have different ways to describe how they verbally instructed their players on the safest way to tackle an opponent. But they all stressed keeping the head up, an emphasis that coincides with the mission of Heads Up.
Two of the 30 area coaches interviewed used the term “bite the ball,” and several others told their players to try and cause fumbles by ramming their face masks into the football. Those terms and descriptions do not fall in line with those of Heads Up and USA Football. Yet the coaches who did use “bite the ball” stressed keeping the head up in order to avoid head and neck injuries.
“We do not teach bite the ball,” Ryland said, stressing the word “not.” “The reason is we want athletes to slide their head to the side of the ball carrier and strike with the shoulder. Some bite the ball proponents say they want the same thing, but we disagree.”
If a ball carrier holds the ball high and tight across the chest, a defender ‘biting the ball’ will have his helmet and/or facemask being the first point of contact, not the shoulder, Ryland said.
“His head will absorb a large part of the contact,” Ryland said. “In an effort to remove the helmet from contact for safety reasons, we teach exactly what we want. Slide the head, strike with the shoulder, regardless of ball position. We think ‘bite the ball’ can actually lead to helmet contact.”
Coaches Billy Sparacio of Naples First Baptist Academy and Ryan Mitchell of Palmetto Ridge each said they used “bite the ball” when talking to their players.
“In biting the ball, you keep your head up,” Sparacio said. “When the crown of your helmet is exposed, your head is down. We don’t want them to put their head down. You want to get your face on the football. That automatically puts your head on the side. By keeping your face up, it also forces you to bend your knees. If you’re squatting, you’re going to keep your head up.
“The injuries occur at the crown of the helmet.”
Canterbury coach Mike Marciano wanted to clarify one of his coaching philosophies. He does not tell his players to hit with the top of their shoulder pads. Instead, he wants their first point of contact to be just below the top of the shoulder.
“It’s a common misconception to tackle with the shoulder pads,” Marciano said. “If they are bent over, that means their head is down. Our head is up. Our hips are lower than our shoulder.
“We try to put our face to the ball. We drive our hips. We wrap. We want to put our face to the ball because then we are not arm tackling. The crown of our heads, the neck, none of that is involved with the tackle. You can’t tackle what you can’t see. I’m putting my breast plate on the ballcarrier.”
DIFFERENT TERMS, SAME GOALS
The 30 coaches said they treated their fourth-year seniors the same as their incoming freshmen when it comes to teaching tackling.
“You want to have that memory of tackling,” South Fort Myers coach Grant Redhead said. “You want to make it fundamental. Just like you want them in the same stance every time, you want them making a tackle the same way every time.”
Redhead shuddered at the memory of George Smith, an Immokalee player paralyzed from the waist down during a preseason game in 1998. Redhead said he watched the replay dozens of times, wondering if the injury resulted from Smith using improper tackling technique. He didn’t, Redhead said, which means those playing the game the right way are still playing with a risk.
“I play because I love the game,” said Ocasio Cofield Jr., a Fort Myers High junior linebacker who learned to curb bad tackling habits from youth football and from watching NFL games. “I love the game. It’s hard, because I had a habit of going in for a tackle head first. I wanted to go full speed and dive, because I thought I could hurt them more that way. Now I know how serious it is.”
Ocasio Cofield Sr., 33 and a defensive back at Fort Myers High in the late 1990s, said he emphasized to his son proper technique whenever he could. Cofield Sr.’s playing career was cut short at East Tennessee State because of a neck injury. He did not know if that injury happened because he used improper technique or not, because everything unfolded so fast and so long ago.
Even that hasn’t been enough for Cofield Sr. to worry too much about his son playing the game they love.
“As a former football player, I don’t worry about him as much as his mother does,” Cofield Sr. said.
This Friday night, young men will take to the field for preseason games across Southwest Florida. They will gather hoping for thrills and not the sudden chills that happen when a player goes down with a head or spinal cord injury.
In the split second prior to colliding with the ball carrier, Matthews said he slides his head to the side. If he does it right, the linebacker’s first point of contact with the ball carrier will be his upper chest, just below the top of his shoulder pads.
As Matthews smashes into the running back, wide receiver or kick returner, he tries to do so at full speed, bringing with him the fullest of forces.
The accelerated speed of a game makes watching, demonstrating, drilling and walking through the safest way to tackle a paramount to practice, Matthews said, because when it comes to tackling in a game, there rings one truth.
“To tell you the truth,” he said, “you’re not even thinking about it.”