New Jersey HS football passes bill to drastically limit full-contact practice hours

Photo: Alexandra Pais/Asbury Park Press correspondent

New Jersey high school football officials voted Wednesday to implement the most restrictive contact limitations during practice at any level of the sport.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association passed a bill that reduces in-season full-contact limits from 90 minutes per week to 15 minutes and preseason full-contact hours from unlimited to six.

“The image of the ‘rub some dirt on it’ football coach is really one of the past,” said Chuck Klaus, former president and current board member of the NJSIAA executive committee. “They want their kids to succeed, they want them to do well, but ultimately they want them healthy and safe.”

Will restrictions on contact eventually extend beyond New Jersey? Practice Like Pros, an advocacy group that proposed the bill, is in discussion with high school football associations from seven other states that the organization has either presented to or has a presentation scheduled.

At the top of the list is Michigan, which is nearing approval for similar restrictions to New Jersey. The representative council is expected to meet in May to discuss.

Though the bill minimizes full-contact allowances, the NJSIAA and the New Jersey Football Coaches’ Association don’t think practices will be altered significantly.

NJFCA president John Fiore said the definition of “full-contact” established by Practice Like Pros will create an easy transition for coaches.

“When we went and did the data over a year’s time on how much full contact we were doing based on [the] definition, it wasn’t difficult to get them to the 30 minutes a week during the season and six hours during the preseason,” Fiore said in November.

Practice Like Pros president Terry O’Neil encourages using the “thud” technique in practices in which the defender wraps up a ballcarrier without taking him to the ground.

When his organization presents this concept to state associations, it uses film from the Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars and Rutgers to show how teams at higher levels develop tackling skills without full-contact practice.

“This is the revelation moment for most high school coaches to realize how much real work they can get done without tackling player-on-player,” O’Neil said in November.

Kevin Carty Jr., a football coach and board member of the NJSIAA, doesn’t think it will take much adjustment.

“I think we’ve been trying to do this on our own,” he said. “This is just going to make sure that it’s the case throughout the state.”

Like New Jersey, most Michigan schools in the state follow similar guidelines at practices already, Michigan High School Athletic Association executive director Mark Uyl said.

But this bill would better measure “full-contact” instead of making coaches discern how to characterize a live-player drill.

“Adding the thud concept into our definitions was very, very important,” Uyl said. “The thud situation, there’s not a physical winner or loser, nobody’s being taken to the ground. . . . We really needed those three levels: live, thud, and then obviously, contact that isn’t player-to-player.”

In doing so, the MHSAA and Michigan High School Football Coaches Association are confident players will be safer and healthier without sacrificing technique.

“An analogy that detractors often will use is if you want kids to be stronger, you need to lift weights every other day, that you’ve gotta continue to kind of build that load up or else they’re not going to be ready,” Uyl said.

“Contact in football really doesn’t work that way, it’s not a case of, ‘Well the more we hit, the more often that we hit, the more proficient our kids are going to be.’ It’s finding that right balance.”

O’Neil is cautiously optimistic that with Michigan and New Jersey on board, other states will be inclined to follow.

“We’re hopeful that approval in New Jersey and Michigan will trigger full consideration in several other states,” he said.

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