Long-time TV executive Terry O’Neil used to pay attention to ratings points. These days he’s interested in more alarming numbers.
Speaking at the South Carolina Athletic Coaches Association All-Sports Clinic Monday, O’Neil pointed out that the number of concussions incurred by NFL players in practice during the average regular season and postseason over the past three years, according to the players union, is five.
As for the average in high school football?
“There’s no good answer to that, because high schools don’t have to report the way the league does to the union,” O’Neil said, “but every estimate that’s been done is in the hundreds of thousands.”
That’s why O’Neil founded “Practice Like Pros” two years ago, a program whose stated mission is to “advocate change in high school football.”
It’s a program that has been endorsed by numerous current and former pro and college players and coaches, including Sam Wyche, who played at Furman University and in the NFL, coached in the NFL, resides in Pickens and has coached at Pickens High School.
“I’ve learned over the years that the coach that has the best players has the best chance to win,” said Wyche, who joined O’Neil in addressing football coaches Monday at the TD Convention Center.
“That’s almost true. Here’s the way to make it completely true. The team that has the best players that are dressed out for the ball game because they’re not injured has the best chance to win.”
Wyche said the idea of limiting contact in practice might involve coaches convincing their staffs. He shared the story of the birth of the no-huddle offense, which he conceived at Indiana University and then brought to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“You may have to sell it a little bit to the coaches like I had to sell the no-huddle,” he said. “By golly, it’s worth it.”
Wyche said during his last eight years as a coach in the NFL, his teams never practiced two-a-days in training camp. According to the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, he said, teams are allowed to hit only two hours a week and his teams never hit that much, maybe 45 minutes and toward the end of his career less than that.
“I realized how important it was keeping players healthy, keeping your legs fresh and making sure that they understood that when we practice full speed, we practice full speed,” he said. “We don’t have some guys going full and some guys going a different speed. That’s when accidents and injuries happen.”
According to a study by the Sports Legacy Institute, 60 to 75 percent of head trauma among high school football players occurs in practice.
“This is the worst, most shameful statistic in all of football, because we control the environment in practice,” O’Neil said.
It’s also, he said, the number that put “Practice Like Pros” in business.
Since its inception in August 2013, O’Neil and his comrades have made presentations in 15 states. They will visit with 10 high school associations in all this summer; South Carolina was the eighth.
Since “Practice Like Pros” came onto the scene, 41 states have restricted contact in some way.
California passed a law that prohibits football teams at middle and high schools from holding full-contact practices that exceed 90 minutes a day, limits the number of full-contact practices during the season to two per week and prohibits contact practices during the offseason.
The Ohio High School Athletic Commission’s board of directors voted recently to limit players to 30 minutes of full-contact practice per day and 60 minutes per week during the regular season.
South Carolina has yet to restrict contact, but Berea coach Wayne Green said most schools already have done so.
“The best thing to do before it’s mandated is go ahead and do it,” Green said. “It’s coming down the pike, so you might as well get used to it.
“We did spring practice different than we’ve ever done before, and our fall practice is going to be different as well. Spring was almost like a trial run. We only hit so many days, we limited the contact we had in practice, we had quick whistles, we had a real emphasis on taking care of your teammate.”
“We’re going to have to be proactive,” said Hillcrest coach Greg Porter. “Things you used to do, you can’t do. It’s for the betterment of your players and your program.”
Porter and the Rams proved that good health can make quite a difference.
“In 2013, we went into the Woodmont game (in Week 11) playing our second- and third-teamers because of injuries,” Porter said. “We were hitting a lot. In 2014, we only hit once a week. We limited everything else and we had the entire team. It made the difference between region champions and (losing in the) second round and region champions and state champions.”
Clearly, the matter is two-fold: It’s about keeping players safe and keeping them healthy.
O’Neil rattled off incident after incident in which high school players went back into games after non-diagnosed head injuries, most having died as a result.
“Players don’t tell the truth about their symptoms,” O’Neil said. “Their concussions are hard to recognize. What we most need is to change the culture where the players will begin to self-report and self-diagnose.
“Tell these stories to your players. Scare these kids straight a little bit.”