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South Bend Tribune (Indiana)
SOUTH BEND - It's one thing to talk a good game.
It's something completely different to back it up with numbers.
Now, when the South Bend Community School Corp., claims its mission is to ensure the welfare of its student-athletes, it has statistics to back it up.
Two years into its involvement with Heads Up Football, a player safety program initiated by USA Football, the statistics have shown a considerable decrease in concussions at the corporation's four high schools. They went from 53 reported concussions in 2014, before the program was in place, to 21 this past season.
"That helmet is so heavy, it's easy for a kid to feel immortal," said corporation athletic director Kirby Whitacre. "There's a temptation to use it as a weapon; to lead with the head. This program is about education and training, so that doesn't become an issue."
The program, which is subsidized by the Indianapolis Colts, provides coaches a blueprint for teaching the proper fundamentals and techniques in blocking and tackling to avoid head injuries. Items like eliminating live kickoffs in practice and limiting contact in practice are part of the 20 points covered in the mandate to the coaches.
"It helps to have a plan in place that (coaches) can follow," said Washington head football coach Jay Johnson, the only South Bend coach who has been in place through the before and after of the program. "It has to be a priority for the head coach. If it is, your assistants will pick up on that. From them, the players see how important it is."
Myron Henderson recognizes the significance. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Henderson is hardly the prototypical offensive guard. Though he has given up some size, the senior has survived and remained healthy through fundamentals and techniques.
As a sophomore playing junior varsity, before Heads Up Football was instituted, Henderson sustained a concussion.
"I can't even remember the play I was hurt on," Henderson said. "I just remember my brain was foggy and my sight wasn't on point. And the bright lights? They bothered me."
It was three weeks before Henderson could play again. He has been free of any head trauma since.
"I've been more mindful of taking hits to the head," Henderson said. "We focused a lot on the tackling circuit (the last two years), learning how to bring down a runner without using our head. As an offensive lineman, we learned how to explode safely."
"After a while, we had the players correcting each other on techniques," said Johnson. "The points (Heads Up Football) hits aren't drastic changes, just subtle things."
Washington's concussions, as reported by its certified athletic trainer, went from eight in 2015 to just two this past season. Johnson said he was "ecstatic" when he saw the numbers.
"We'd love to take the head out of the game, except for the thinking part," said Whitacre.
The next step is to get the program set up at the intermediate center level. It's more difficult because those schools don't have certified athletic trainers available, like the high schools. Each high school coaching staff has a designated "safety coach," who is a resource available to the intermediate centers that would normally feed into that school. Johnson, who is Washington's safety coach, said he has never been contacted for advice by anyone.
Whitacre said he is trying to plan a summer clinic through Heads Up Football to educate coaches at all levels.
All this, Johnson hopes, might convince parents that, with proper education and training, football can be a safe activity for their sons.
"Every parent wants their son to be the same person when they come home that they were when they left," Johnson said. "It's a physical game, but we're hoping more parents will be comfortable allowing their kids to be involved."
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