Bill DiNardo remembers how it was when he played high school football in the mid-1970s.
“I don’t know how we’re still alive,” he said. “I was taught not to drink water. I was taught to stick my head in somebody’s numbers. As a running back, lower my head and move the pile that way. I was taught to do a cross-body block in the open field. How we’re walking and talking today, I’m not really sure.
“But I know things are a lot better now.”
DiNardo has been a head football coach for 32 years, first at Caravel and Middletown, now at Salesianum. He has seen high school football evolve with an emphasis on safety, especially over the last 10 years.
With 2,777 players across 45 schools in 2016-17 — the most recent numbers available — football remains the most popular high school sport in Delaware.
But as concerns continue to increase about concussions and possible neurological effects later in life, more parents and players are questioning the safety of the sport.
The state’s head coaches are working to address those worries, focusing on increased education to help them safeguard players from injuries, especially concussions.
Delaware is among the national leaders in stepping up the amount of safety training all coaches are required to receive, and coaches are being granted more time to teach their players new, safer ways to play football.
The Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association has been conducting Heads Up safety tackling and instructional camps each spring for the last seven years. At first, the camps were held at one location, but this spring marks the second year that each football-playing Delaware high school will be allowed to hold a five-day camp at its own site, between May 29-June 8.
Teaching high school players the latest Heads Up tackling and blocking techniques is critical to enhancing safety. Tackling and blocking with the head down — which for many years was considered acceptable at all levels of football — increases the likelihood of concussions and other head and neck injuries.
“There is no live hitting whatsoever,” said St. Georges coach John Wilson, president of the coaches group. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate the tackling drills and the blocking drills that are being taught to us and implement them to our kids. So our coaches are teaching them and our players are learning them.”
Forty schools held safety camps last spring, with the approval of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association. It is not “spring football.” No contact, live drills or plays run from alignments are allowed during the five two-hour sessions.
“There is no live hitting. There is no contact between human beings,” said DIAA executive director Tommie Neubauer. “Our board has been very supportive of it, because it’s just teaching the safe techniques, heads up tackling, blocking, things like that.”