When a half dozen high school coaches convened recently to talk football, some consensus about what is probably the game’s biggest long-term issue emerged.
With concern about the effects of head injuries growing, there is no choice but to embrace changes to the game because the consequences are not acceptable.
“If we let this game go, I’ll tell you what: Society’s gonna hurt. It really is,” said longtime Wayne coach Jay Minton. “Because these guys (high school football players) are going to be the leaders, many, many of the people on these teams.
“But it’s just about not being stubborn. Don’t be stubborn. Don’t do it the way we were taught because the way we were taught is definitely wrong. But it’s just the way (it is). If we don’t make a change like that, we’re gonna lose the game.”
Minton praised the work of USA Football in pushing new forms of tackling and recommending new structures for games and practices while Springboro coach Ryan Wilhite noted those types of things have replaced Xs and Os in clinic conversations recently.
“I’m just really really proud of the way coaches have embraced change in our game, the way we’ve embraced how we practice, how we teach tackling,” Wilhite said. "The willingness to study… you would go to a clinic and you used to hear people talking about all these schemes, and now you go to a clinic and you hear all these coaches talking about the basics of tackling.”
He can relate to parents who have to decide if their elementary-school-aged children should take up football. He’s gone through it as the father of a football player himself.
“It was never a question (his son would play). And I would tell you as you go through it, the things he has gained from character and toughness and the ability to overcome things — it’s worth all that,” Wilhite said.
Dave Miller, a former Centerville quarterback who is entering his third year as the coach at Fairmont, added change is not easy and noted the question that follows inevitably centers on toughness.
In Miller’s days playing for legendary Elks coach Bob Gregg, coaches were concerned about developing toughness, but there wasn’t much question about how to do it.
The answer was hitting, hitting and more hitting.
After that? Let’s get some more hitting in.
That isn’t the case anymore.
“It’s hard to replicate, but moving on into the future and realizing we have to save the sport, we have to do things differently,” Miller said. “There’s a time and place for that. We teach toughness in different ways, in the weight room and things like that.”
He said the Firebirds have instituted the rugby-style tackling popularized a few years ago by the Seattle Seahawks and developing the muscles around the neck to provide more stability.
(Ironically, building neck strength is something coaches have believed in for a long time — back when a concussion might be written off as getting “dinged” and “playing through the fog” after a hard hit was not something anyone gave a second thought.)
Beavercreek coach Nic Black said there is scientific research from Ohio State to back up the positives of a strong neck and pointed to how the Beavers get at the toughness issue.
“We try to teach confidence,” Black said. “Confidence leads to fast play. When kids play full speed, they do not get hurt for the most part. They might hurt others, and that happens, but your kid is safe, so we try to go out and make sure that our kids are as protected as possible which goes back to our preventative measures and then teaching them confidence. From the confidence comes toughness.”
That all sounds good, but can a team cut back on hitting and still be successful?
Jeff Graham said yes — and he might be more qualified than anyone in the state to say so.
His state champion Trotwood-Madison Rams not only went undefeated in Division II last season, they beat Division I champion Pickerington Central by two scores in the regular season.
If there were a trophy for the best overall team in Ohio for 2017, it would belong to Graham’s Rams.
“We have contact drills but not tackling drills,” Graham said. “We work on form tackling as a stationary position in our group things, but when we (do full-squad sessions) and things of that nature we basically just bump and then our kids run so they don’t have to face that contact because of course Friday is a couple of days away.”
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The 49-year-old, who played in the NFL for 11 seasons and noted he is part of ongoing legislation against the league regarding handling of medical issues, also stresses to players and parents the importance of taking head injuries seriously.
“Any kid who complains about a headache or anything of that nature, make sure they are evaluated by our training staff and go through the proper protocol to help our kids understand that,” Graham said.
Minton said players and coaches from elementary and middle school are invited to watch them to see how they do things, and Centerville coach Brent Ullery said the same is true for the wee Elks.
However, Ullery identified an ongoing impediment to fully transitioning to a new era.
“Football is moving in one direction, but everybody coaching it learned it a different way,” Ullery said. “We all learned it was about mental toughness and you get your head in front. If your head’s not in front, you’re wrong. And now if your head’s in front, you’re wrong. So it’s the complete opposite.
“It’s taking a lot of humility for coaches to see that everybody’s willing to teach it a different way, but it’s got to start up here and trickle down to your peewees and everything. Then hopefully injuries will go down and mothers and fathers will be more comfortable with their sons playing football and hopefully programs will be able to thrive again.”
Ultimately, that’s what all of the coaches want to see, but Wilhite reminded observers there will always be a balance for the game to maintain.
“I think football is safer than it’s ever been, but it’s always going to be a risk,” the Springboro coach said. “It’s a contact sport. You’ve got to understand that when you get in there and players certainly do, too.”