American Heritage football's limited-contact practices have led to championships

Photo: Kayla Rubenstein

American Heritage football's limited-contact practices have led to championships

Football

American Heritage football's limited-contact practices have led to championships

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PLANTATION, Fla. – It’s Tuesday and Wednesday football practices in August during game week for American Heritage School, winners of four Florida state championships in the past six years. But it doesn’t look like typical game-week practices, especially in football-crazed South Florida, where kids as young as 7 years old hit more often than this nationally acclaimed high school.

Most of the Patriots’ drills have a predetermined outcome. The American Heritage running backs take handoffs, make a cut and dash untouched into the end zone as defenders let them go. The offensive linemen largely work on assignments and hand placements while engaged in some limited contact. The linebackers hit sleds and run no-contact drills designed to leverage the ball-carrier.

When a young cornerback mistakenly tackles a wide receiver in the end zone, the American Heritage coaches shout, “Hold him up! Hold him up!” On his way to the sideline for a water break, the cornerback gets gently reminded by a coach of the cardinal rule at these practices: There’s no tackling to the ground.

American Heritage, with six former NFL players on its coaching staff, practices like the pros. These days, NFL teams are allowed only 14 full-contact practices during their 17-week regular season. Patriots head coach Pat Surtain, a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback, estimates American Heritage tackles at practice four times all year – twice in the spring and twice in summer scrimmages.

“Looking back at drills I did in my career, you shake your head and you’re like, ‘Man, we really did this?’” Surtain said. “Bull in the Ring and Oklahoma Drill are outdated and comical. Some coaches are still using it. There’s no place in the sport for it anymore. You don’t have to prove your toughness anymore.”

American Heritage Football Team
Location: Plantation, Florida
Team Budget: Estimated at $50,000 ($1.5 million athletic department budget)
Roster Size: 48 varsity players, 25-30 junior varsity players
History: 4 state championships in past 6 years
Coach: Pat Surtain
Athletic Trainer: One (plans to hire a second)

American Heritage, a private school of 2,800 students ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade, isn’t the only high school in the country that significantly limits or eliminates tackling at practice. But the approach is still markedly different than many high school and youth programs – and American Heritage adopted the concept seven years ago in a highly competitive football state and before the NCAA even began adjusting its practice guidelines.

It’s telling that this approach comes from a staff of former NFL players – Surtain, Daryl Porter, Earl Little, Oronde Gadsden, Anthony Harris and Van Waiters – who played a combined 43 years professionally. Surtain, Porter and Gadsden are among the former NFL players who sued the league over severe and permanent brain damage they say is linked to concussions suffered on the job. They played in what Porter calls the “smelling salt era.”

As part of a settlement with the NFL, Surtain visited a doctor recently in Atlanta for cognitive tests.

“There are times I forget things,” said Surtain, 43. “It’s weird. You remember yourself from back then, and now you walk into a room and I forget what I was looking for. It happens a lot. I’m not at that stage yet of panic or anything, but you can sense it and feel it as you’re forgetting stuff.”

Having grown up with hitting every day, Surtain came to appreciate how former Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards implemented no tackling to keep players fresh. Porter remembers how much better he felt when Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Wade Phillips kept contact minimal. Surtain said former American Heritage head coach Mike Rumph, another ex-NFL player, had a similar experience with Steve Mariucci and the San Francisco 49ers, so Rumph began American Heritage’s no-tackling-to-the-ground model seven years ago.

“Mike said, ‘Here’s how I want to do it,’” American Heritage athletic director Karen Stearns said. “We’re all like, ‘Really?’”

‘We were all skeptical’

The school’s director of football operations, former Major League Baseball player Bruce Aven, played football in Texas. His mindset was if a teammate broke his leg in practice, “We stepped over him and went over to the goal line.”

“I was skeptical of (American Heritage’s new) approach. We were all skeptical,” Aven said. “These guys came in and are running 90-minute practices, and you’re wondering can they be a good team? Are they going to be soft? Are they ready to play four quarters? And they were.”

In 2017, American Heritage finished No. 3 in the final USA Today High School Sports Super 25 national rankings. Some of the school’s talent is starting to reach the NFL, including players such as Sony Michel, Brian Burns and Isaiah McKenzie.

American Heritage’s players come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Some players live in gated communities; others come from low-income homes and travel more than an hour each day by bus.

Undoubtedly, American Heritage enjoys more resources than many high schools. Stearns said the athletic department budget is $1.5 million for 54 teams. Surtain estimated his football team spends $50,000 per year – not counting an annual out-of-state game. As a prominent national program, the school has a contract with Nike to receive free uniforms, apparel and other gear every two years.

“Some of the things we can buy, like knee braces for all of the linemen, they’re not cheap and not everyone can do,” Stearns said. “But there’s no reason other schools can’t do things like not taking kids to the ground. For us, this is totally normal, but it didn’t used to be. We watch other programs that still do things very old school and they have a lot of injuries.”

Healthy Sport Index Contest

American Heritage is the Aspen Institute’s Healthy Sport Index award winner for high school football. In partnership with Hospital for Special Surgery, the Healthy Sport Index helps the public make informed decisions about sport activity that meets the needs of youth. The Aspen Institute is searching over the next year for additional exemplary and innovative high school teams from many sports. The national search seeks teams that embrace best practices and innovate new ways to encourage physical activity, minimize injury risk, and support athletes’ emotional, social and mental well-being. High school teams may be nominated here.

All of American Heritage’s coaches must take courses in concussion management, handling heat illness and sudden cardiac arrest. Stearns said all coaches practice their venue-specific emergency action plan at least once a year and receive reminders from the athletic trainer during the season.

Surtain said he also pays close attention to giving players a positive emotional experience. A leadership group of about a dozen players, regardless of grade, meet with Surtain periodically to report on the pulse of the team.

To be sure, there’s some yelling by coaches at practices. “Of course, you want to be firm with them, but I’m not much of a screamer,” Surtain said. “Especially with today’s kids, they don’t take well to yelling. If you degrade a kid all the time, he’s going to think negatively about himself. Play the game and have fun. A lot of people treat it like these kids are being paid.”

Coaches and players say that coming to American Heritage can be jarring, especially with no tackling at practice. It’s counterintuitive to how they’ve always practiced football.

“At my other high school, we would go full contact in practice and tackle to the ground pretty much every day,” said linebacker Zachary Crooks, who transferred to American Heritage in February from a South Florida public school. “Personally, I like no-tackling because tackling, once you learn it, it’s just instinct. I think my body feels better now than this time last year.”

Said offensive lineman Andres Mestre: “You’re not constantly being smacked every single time. It’s relief. It’s not having to worry about my knees every play or worrying about getting blindsided. It’s more working on the fundamentals.”

There’s some necessity to this approach. American Heritage has 48 varsity players – fewer than many public schools. (The JV team has 25 to 30 players, and Surtain has a no-cut policy). One year, the Patriots won a state championship with five total offensive linemen all year. So yes, they need to stay healthy.

If the Patriots reach the state title game this season, they will have played 16 games (including one preseason game) – the length of an NFL regular season. Surtain intentionally schedules two byes during the regular season so players can recuperate. There are no team meetings or workouts on Saturdays or Sundays, though players have access to film.

“Those two days definitely help when your body gets banged up,” said Frank Millan, the school’s full-time athletic trainer. “We’re also a very good academic school. The kids also need that time for academics.”

On the practice field, Millan and his handful of student assistants monitor the wet bulb temperature – a necessity during humid South Florida days when the air temperature can feel like 105 degrees. Water breaks occur about every 10 minutes on the hottest days, with Millan and Surtain constantly ordering players to go drink. If players aren’t participating in a drill, they’re usually on the sideline drinking water and searching for shade under a small tent.

There’s a plastic ice tub ready on the field or right outside the locker room every day in case of a heat stroke. It’s a minimal cost – ice tubs like this can be purchased for no more than $150 – given that nationally three football players a year on average have died of heat stroke since 1995, most of them high schoolers. Dr. Douglas Casa, executive director of the Korey Stringer Institute, told HBO Real Sports that ice tubs have saved athletes from heat stroke every single time in more than 2,000 cases he has tracked.

Yet many schools don’t have these tubs. In 2018, the Florida High School Athletic Association voted to “strongly recommend” that schools have ice tubs; some board members sought for this to be a requirement but the association’s attorney feared “enforcing the rule would be impossible,” according to NBC 2 News in Florida. The Korey Stringer Institute lists only 13 state high school associations that require its schools to have ice tubs for all warm-weather practices: New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, Hawaii, Arkansas, Mississippi, Utah, Vermont, Idaho and the District of Columbia.

At American Heritage, each athlete signs a waiver giving a licensed medical professional permission to use a rectal thermometer for severe heat illness if needed. The policy was controversial at first, Stearns said, but now it’s accepted. Every Thursday, players take ice baths for recovery.

During the season, football players typically lift weights Mondays and Tuesdays during a strength and conditioning class at the end of the school day. In the offseason, about 90% of the football players participate in another sport, such as basketball, wrestling and track and field, according to strength coach Mike Smith.

“I don’t want them coming right back to football movements after a long season,” Smith said. “I think playing other sports creates well-rounded athletes. It prevents overuse injuries. College coaches like multisport athletes. Plus, the other big part of it is you don’t turn that competitive switch off.”

Tackling South Florida football culture

To say football in South Florida is competitive would be an understatement. The fact that American Heritage takes this no-tackling approach so seriously in this part of the country isn’t lost on anybody at the school – and was a factor in the Aspen Institute and Hospital for Special Surgery honoring American Heritage as the football winner in its Healthy Sport Index national search for exemplary teams.

“We just watched a kids game last night, and you can’t believe how many people on a Monday night are watching 12-year-old kids play football like it’s Monday Night Football,” said Porter, American Heritage’s defensive coordinator. “Honestly, those kids practice harder than we do.”

Consider the American Youth Football League schedule for Smith’s 10-year-old son. Spring practice occurs the whole month of May (although without pads). Summer practice starts July 1. The first game is Aug. 10, and the regular season finishes Oct. 15. The league’s local Super Bowl is Nov. 9, culminating a four-month season. Some teams may even play into December for national championships.

“That’s a lot, man,” Smith said. “My son’s team practices every night. They say it’s regulated, but it’s not. There are rules like you’re only supposed to hit 15 minutes a day. But I watch these practices. The people coaching these kids are like, ‘Aw, we’re just going to hit for 40 minutes tonight.’ You’ve got to remember, these are 7-, 8- and 9-year-old kids. One hundred percent, they’re hitting far more than at our high school practices, and the hits all add up.”

Smith got so frustrated at the quality of youth coaching that he became a coach for his son. The tipping point: He witnessed another coach order a group of kids – including Smith’s son – to run full speed into each other from 10 yards away in order to build toughness.

“That’s a CTE drill, as far as I’m concerned,” Smith said. “It’s tricky down here, because it’s such a competitive environment. There’s a way of thinking down here, in the city schools and parks: ‘This is where you came from; you should play a certain way.’ It’s the old The U (University of Miami football team) mentality. No matter how you look at it, it’s a violent sport, and you’ve got to have some type of violence. But that doesn’t mean it has to be crazy.”

What We Like
Other innovative health ideas by Healthy Sport Index Contest football finalists

  • Junipero Serra High School (San Mateo, Calif.): There’s no tackling to the ground at practice all year at Serra, which won a state championship two years ago. The team is now using an app to create individual health and conditioning plans for each player. This allows coaches, athletic trainers, administrators, parents and players to all communicate from one source, reducing the risk of missing key injury information.
  • University School (Hunting Valley, Ohio): The football and track and field programs combined to start a conditioning program that now also reaches younger kids at the school. The strength coach visits students from kindergarten to 12th grade and teaches them basic physical movements and tips to be active. The reaction was so positive that the school created a seventh- and eighth-grade summer conditioning camp for all students.
  • Lehman High School (Bronx, N.Y.): Working on a shoestring budget in a high-poverty community, Lehman helps players develop emotional and social skills to communicate openly. Seniors have the chance to speak to the team about anything they want. “You’d be surprised how many say they were going to quit because it was so hard, and they express themselves in front of each other,” coach Christopher DiTullio said. “Our goal is to keep them busy, get them tired, and send them home tired. If they’re practicing and staying busy, they’re not in the streets.”

At American Heritage, the sixth-grade tackle football team switched to flag this year because only 15 players came out for tackle in 2018. Stearns didn’t want to lose participants, so she found other private schools willing to change, too. Although flag is popular in South Florida, tackle is still king.

Nationally, high school tackle football in all forms lost about 102,000 players between 2008 and 2018 (a 9% decline), according to the National Federation of State High School Association. Participation is at its lowest mark since 1999, amid growing injury concerns of students and their parents. Florida is a rare state that didn’t lose high school football players over the last decade.

“It’s just a different mentality here,” Smith said.

Though he sometimes struggles with his memory, Surtain said he has no regrets about playing football for 27 years. His son is now a starting cornerback at the University of Alabama. Surtain just elects to coach differently.

“You see things in today’s game, even when they try to make the game safer, where you wish they would play the game the old way, because that’s just your mentality,” Surtain said. “You see these soft hits and they call these penalties, and you’re like, ‘Nah, that’s not real football.’ But the game’s changed. Who knows if it’s for the better? But we know it’s safer, and that’s most important.”

Jon Solomon, a longtime journalist, is editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. Email Jon at jon.solomon@aspeninstitute.org. Follow the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program on Twitter at @AspenInstSports.

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