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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)

 

When St. Christopher's football team practices, the same words echo from the coaches' mouths that have been yelled at high school football practices for decades.

"Wrong side! Your head is on the wrong side!"

The difference today, though, is the meaning that those words carry. St. Christopher's head coach Lance Clelland and his tackling coach, Davis Theakston, want their players' heads to be as far away as possible from the player with whom they're colliding, the opposite of previous teaching.

Clelland hired Theakston three years ago to implement the rugby method of tackling at St. Christopher's, a style that has become popular in the Richmond area. Most local coaches are teaching their players this new technique.

This tackling style is just one new tactic being used to reduce brain injuries in high school football players. Coaches are also changing their practices to limit contact and teaching linemen and other players how to initiate contact without hitting their heads.

This new movement toward safety is a result of increased awareness and science surrounding concussions and other brain injuries, especially chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE, which researchers believe takes years of repetitive hits to the head to develop, moved squarely to the forefront of the safety discussion after Dr. Ann McKee released unprecedented findings in July.

McKee, director of the Boston University CTE Center, said she found traces of CTE in 110 of 111 former NFL players and three of 14 former high school football players.

Her research, as well as other studies linking repetitive head hits to measurable brain damage, has influenced a shift toward eliminating impacts to players' heads whenever possible for many high school football teams in the Richmond area.

A new way to tackle

Theakston holds a unique role. His only focus during practices is whether players are tackling in a safe and effective way.

He doesn't have to concern himself with calling plays, introducing a game plan or any other duties coaches typically hold.

"He is hyper-focused on only how they have contact," Clelland said. "To have one individual focused on that during a football practice ... does wonders for our boys in terms of keeping them safe."

The rugby form of tackling involves stepping to a runner with one foot in front of the other, the shoulders and head up and the back arched. The tackler explodes into the quad area of the runner, wraps his arms, then lifts and carries the player backward to knock him off of his feet.

These techniques are not wholly different from what has traditionally been taught, but players are now told to keep their head away from the runner rather than in front of him.

Teaching players to eliminate their head from the equation rather than use it to help make a tackle is not new to football, Theakston said. Players used to tackle without their heads because they had less protection from injury, but once plastic helmets were instituted, coaches began teaching players to use their heads as weapons, he said.

"Football is a very rough-and-tumble game, and so is rugby," Theakston said. "But there are far fewer injuries in rugby than in football, and they're not padded. And so it's the technique of going into contact, using leverage, getting your head completely out."

The rugby style was widely reintroduced to football in 2014 when Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll created an instructional video to teach other teams, both in the NFL and at lower levels, how to perform an effective tackle without using the head. A new name emerged for the style as a result - the Hawk tackle, short for Seahawk.

Carroll's style is not identical to what Theakston, who played rugby for more than two decades, is teaching at St. Christopher's. There are nuances to a rugby tackle, such as landing on top of the ball carrier rather than underneath, that Carroll doesn't teach, Theakston said.

Still, both styles keep the head out of the tackle, which sharply contrasts with what players used to be taught - that their head needed to cross the opponent's body and aim for the football. Timone Brown, an assistant coach at Henrico High and former Henrico player, grew up learning to use his head during tackles.

"You've been telling us, 'Hey, head to the ball. Make sure you see what you're hitting. Use your facemask on the ball. Eat the ball. Wrap up,'" Brown said. "You've been telling us that for years."

Jens Ames, a senior linebacker for St. Christopher's, began learning the rugby tackling method from Theakston when he was a sophomore. He said it took some time to learn because he, too, was previously taught to "put your head across them so they can't run through you."

But he said the new style has paid off.

"Probably the first year or two, it was pretty frustrating just because I had done it the same way my whole life," Ames said. "I felt like really this year, I've really gotten the hang of it, and it's definitely kept me out of some situations where my head would have been in the way."

Clelland told Theakston when he was first hired that implementing a new tackling technique would be a marathon, because older players like Ames have developed tackling habits contrary to what Theakston teaches. The coaches said they believe that over time at St. Christopher's, older forms of tackling will be phased out in favor of their style.

"Now, we're at a point where our sophomores first heard this in eighth grade," Clelland said. "As these boys are getting older, it's going to be a lot easier. They won't even think about it as being new, it's now just the way I tackle."

To further build a pipeline of proper tackling, Clelland and Theakston developed what they call a "pigskin league." The league meets Sundays at St. Christopher's and consists of elementary-aged kids who play a padless game that mixes rugby and football.

The coaches are aiming to teach safe tackling habits to kids before they learn anything else, with the hopes that those players will take fewer hits to the head throughout their careers.

"If a kid goes through seventh grade through college football and his head goes into contact half as much as it would have normally, your chances of having those type of injuries is going to be diminished quite a bit," Theakston said.

Convincing players

In response to the skepticism some players have about learning new methods, Clelland shows a highlight reel at the beginning of each season that features violent hits in women's rugby. Clelland wants his players to realize that they can make hard hits without using their heads.

Still, even the St. Christopher's players who have bought into the new method are not fans of Theakston's tackling drills. Many of them can be heard grumbling during practice about the drills being boring.

"By all means, we definitely do not like these drills," said Daymone Fleming, a junior linebacker. "With regular tackling we could just go at it however we wanted to, but with the rugby we have to do it a fixed way every time.

"But we think it's effective, and we think it works for us."

Coaches who teach the rugby tackling technique often emphasize that it's equally as helpful to their team's success as it is safe. Though safety is the primary concern for many coaches who have started teaching it, coaches and players say the new style also helps improve tackling.

"It's a lot more effective in my eyes because in rugby, you're getting down, you're getting inside, you're going all full-physical," Fleming said.

Use of the rugby style of tackling hasn't hindered Hermitage High's success on the field, either. Hermitage coach Patrick Kane doubles as a USA Football Master Trainer, which requires him to learn updated blocking and tackling techniques from USA Football annually, which he then teaches his players.

The Panthers have been winning a lot for the past decade, but this season's 9-1 record helped to show that the rugby tackle can be both safe and effective.

Some coaches feel the lessons in practice aren't applying to games. Henrico's Brown said he is hesitant to believe that the rugby style will significantly decrease brain injuries among high school players, though he is a fan of the new method.

"They used to always coach us form tackling, but how many times did we actually make the form tackles that they coached?" he asked. "What happens when that free safety has the opportunity to make a clean hit, or even a hit period, on a wide receiver that's coming across the middle that doesn't see him?

"These instances are still going to happen in the game of football."

Brown isn't alone in realizing that practice habits don't always carry over on game day. Theakston acknowledged that technique sometimes slips during games because the environment is hectic and players get worn down as the game goes on.

Less contact in practice

Though coaches have limited control over their players' technique during games, practices provide coaches an opportunity to focus on technique. For that reason, some local football coaches are designing their practices to minimize contact and, in turn, cut down on concussions and other brain injuries.

Hopewell coach Ricky Irby said he has changed his practicing style throughout his career, and particularly in recent years, to limit repetitive hits to the head.

"We don't tackle to the ground," Irby said. "We don't do a lot of 11-on-11 scrimmaging during practice. There's a lot of things that we are trying to do to be preventative ... as far as keeping these kids from having those constant blow after blow after blow in practice."

St. Christopher's uses a similar practicing method. The players wear only helmets on Mondays and Tuesdays, are fully padded on Wednesdays and wear shoulder pads and helmets on Thursdays. Only 10 minutes of live, full-speed contact occur during the entire week, and it comes on Wednesdays when players are fully dressed in equipment.

More often, the team is taught to practice using what Clelland calls a "thud" tempo. Players will make contact with each other, but they don't collide at full speed and don't tackle each other to the ground.

About halfway through this season, Clelland found that his team was playing in a passive manner in games, allowing opposing players to initiate contact. To combat that, he implemented a segment at the end of practices during which players put on their shoulder pads and practice jabbing each other in the chest and shoulder areas.

The goal is to teach players to initiate contact on their own terms, rather than absorb blows from opponents, Theakston said. The jabbing and hand work is especially relevant for linemen, who could be subject to more than 50 small hits to the head in a single game if they lead with their head rather than their hands.

At Hopewell, Irby works with his linemen, running backs and tacklers, all with the intention of taking the head out of use.

"We're working on more blocking with the feet and the hands and not the upper body," Irby said. "With our offensive line, our blocking techniques. Our running backs, our running techniques. And then, obviously, our tackling techniques.

"We want to do as much as we can to take the head out of football."

By working to reduce big blows to the head through improved tackling techniques, schools like St. Christopher's and Hopewell are combating concussions. And by teaching linemen to use their hands rather than their heads, coaching staffs are trying minimizing the small, repetitive hits, which science suggests can lead to CTE and other long-term brain diseases.

Clelland believes the changes are paying off.

"We're not some silver bullet to this," Clelland said. "However, I do think that here, we're making football as safe as it possibly can be."

Helmets

Helmet innovation is a rapidly changing and ongoing movement among manufacturers such as Riddell, Schutt and Xenith.

These brands, which are all used by Richmond-area high school football teams, are regularly developing new helmet models to try to lessen the blow when football players absorb hits to their heads. To evaluate their effectiveness in doing so, researchers at Virginia Tech developed what is now a widely recognized rating system for the safety of helmets.

The Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings rank helmets on a five-star scale, with five being the safest. Riddell, Schutt and Xenith all make multiple helmet models that earned five-star ratings.

"I've seen a big difference in the way the helmets are designed to help lessen the impact of a blow," Irby said.

The Virginia Board of Education has its own safety measures for helmets. The Board requires high school players' helmets to be certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) both at the time of purchase and after they are reconditioned, which happens after each season.

The Board also recommends "regular training on proper helmet fitting and maintenance" for coaches.

So if helmets are constantly improving and safety guidelines have been set, why are players still suffering concussions, and why does research into CTE and other brain injuries matter?

The anatomy of the brain is designed in such a way that helmets cannot prevent concussions, said Rob Welch, who served as Henrico High's athletic trainer for 10 years before becoming its student activities director this year.

"The problem with dealing with concussions is when you look at it anatomically, the brain sits inside the skull and there's a gap," said Welch, who said he supports the rugby style of tackling. "So no matter how great the equipment is ... you're still gonna get the brain getting this slide and then getting that impact against the inside of the skull.

"I believe there's no way in this world you can create a helmet that's going to reduce that effect. ... You have an anatomical design that can't be rectified, and we were designed that way for a reason."

Many doctors, trainers and coaches share Welch's opinion. Hermitage's Kane is one of them.

"No matter how great your helmet is, it cannot prevent a concussion," Kane said. "It may or may not make it less severe. That can be a discussion up for the scientists."

'100 percent safe' simply not possible

Welch said he thinks the equipment is too good nowadays. It makes kids feel safer, he said, which gives them the idea that they are at less risk for serious injuries and therefore they can fly around the field at will.

"These kids feel invincible," Welch said. "Until you change the way that you look at that, then you're not going to have a huge effect."

Welch does not want to see his players wearing worse helmets, though. As Kane alluded to, the updating and improvement of helmets can still make hits less severe. Kane, Welch and Clelland all said they want their athletes wearing the safest equipment, even if it can't completely eradicate brain injuries.

"You can never get too safe," Clelland said. "The equipment that the boys are wearing now in high school is significantly better than what I wore.

"With that said, if you change the way you teach, the equipment doesn't matter anymore."

As local coaches make changes to keep their players healthy, they know their efforts are not going to eliminate the risks of the sport.

"Concussions will not be out of the game of football until the game of football no longer exists," Brown said.

Rather than try to completely end brain injuries, coaches are making it their goal to control what they can.

"There's no way to make it 100 percent safe," Kane said. "But I think if proper techniques are installed, it can make it a much safer and a much better activity."

At St. Christopher's, the fruits of Clelland and Theakston's labor are starting to show. Clelland said he believes he is putting concerned parents at ease with his new methods. The number of boys playing football there has increased.

"We have about 95 boys in the football program," Clelland said, "which is the most in many, many years of memory at this school."

Though St. Christopher's is seeing an increase in football participation, the national high school football participation numbers are dropping. The final installment of "Not just an NFL problem" will address the future of high school football and other questions that have yet to be answered.

cbroaddus@timesdispatch.com804-649-6891@CharlieBroaddus

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