Hard-Hitting Football Drills Shelved with Eye On Safety

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ARLINGTON, Va. - Bruce Hanson remembers what it was like to play high school football 50 years ago and knows what it's like to coach it today. A big difference is in the drills.

"We used to hit in practice every day" in the 1960s, Hanson says. "We don't do contact drills anymore. Back then we'd say, 'We've got to get tougher.' Well, tougher graduated. Now we're more concerned with technique and schemes."

Hanson was recruited to William & Mary by Marv Levy and played there under Lou Holtz, who named him a captain. Hanson just finished his 46th season of coaching high school football and 33rd as head coach at Yorktown High School. He has won more than 250 games as head coach at two schools and, at 67, is an old school coach with a new age philosophy. "Winning is important," he says. "Safety is more important."

Last week, Hanson had his Patriots walk through some of the drills of yesteryear, but with no actual hitting. The idea was to show USA TODAY how it used to be.

The Patriots, who finished 8-3, have been schooled how to block and tackle with their shoulders and never lead with their heads. They could scarcely believe the headfirst battering-ram drills of another age.

They simulated bull-in-the-ring, where one player gets in the middle of a circle of other players, who take turns hitting the man in the middle; the Oklahoma drill, where a running back, offensive lineman and defensive lineman vie gladiatorially in a confined space; and triple butt, where a tackler buries his head in the numbers of an advancing runner from 10 yards away as they circle around pylons to repeat the contact twice more.

That last one was favored by Holtz at William & Mary, Hanson says. He remembers opposing high school teams running bull-in-the-ring on the field before games in the 1970s.

"The idea was to warm up and toughen up and get pumped up," Hanson says. "If you can believe that."

Gene Posati, Yorktown's offensive line coach, is 78. He played at George Washington University in the late 1950s and remembers a drill called tootsie roll that was essentially being bashed in the head with a round pad.

"We didn't know any better," Posati says.

"It's a wonder we're still alive," Hanson says.

They share a laugh -- and 100 years of high school coaching experience.

"In the '70s, you'd have part of every practice with live tackling and taking people to the ground," Hanson says. "Now we don't do it at all at this place, and I'm sure most teams don't."

'Sucking on your jersey'

Even in the NFL, contact in practices is often limited in recent years. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton says that's a good thing. He notes proper tackling can be taught at close quarters, rather than breakneck collisions from yards apart, as of yore.

"The distance between those involved has gotten smaller," Payton says. "I can be a yard away and we can teach the fit. Man, I can remember in college somewhere when I was an assistant and they were running" full speed at one another. "We were the moms in the car with a young child without a seat belt, smoking a cigarette, pregnant with No. 2. That's what it was like back then. It was ignorance. It was like, 'We're at the beach, you've got some sunburn, let's put some Noxzema on it.' That was me. We didn't know any better. 'Eat your toast in the morning. White bread and jam.' All sugar. We didn't know. And I still crave white bread with strawberry jam. I was raised on it."

Payton, 53, remembers soaking his jersey with water as a player so he could sneak some hydration. "Look, we didn't drink water," he says. "It was like, 'Only when we take a break.' It was viewed as a sign of weakness, and you'd be sucking on your jersey."

Payton praises Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks coach who evangelizes rugby-style tackling, where the emphasis is on leading with the shoulder so the head is never a point of contact.

Payton coached his son Connor's sixth-grade team in 2012, when Payton sat out the NFL season on suspension. "The one thing we wanted to do was to teach them proper fundamentals," he says, "so that it was safe, they had fun and wanted to play again in seventh grade."

Don't have to prove toughness

Levy, best known for coaching the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl losses in the 1990s, says evolution is a natural part of football, as it is in life.

"Everything changes over time," Levy says, "whether it's football, transportation, medicine."

Levy, 92, says he was greatly influenced by the career of Bud Wilkinson, best known for leading the University of Oklahoma to a record 47-game winning streak in the 1950s.

"He was the first I know who said a guy didn't have to prove every day how tough he is," Levy says. "He had a great idea of the balance about when to go hard and when to just prepare for your opponent and learn your assignment."

But Wilkinson is also the one who popularized the go-hard Oklahoma drill, so named for the school where he coached it. The drill is simple but brutal. A tight area is cordoned off by blocking dummies 3 yards apart. A running back lines up behind a blocker who faces off against a tackler. The blocker and tackler try to drive through each other. Helmet-popping collisions are often the result.

When Jimmy Johnson coached at the college level and for the Dallas Cowboys, he ran a similar exercise called the middle drill -- an inside running drill with no receivers or defensive backs on the field and no outside runs allowed. "My favorite drill," he says. "That's why we ran it every single week throughout my coaching career, at every level. You can't do that now." The analyst for Fox NFL Sunday thinks "that's one reason why the tackling is so bad today."

Even the Cowboys' Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, participated. "He ran it like everyone else," Johnson says, "although I'd pull him early from it. It was more for the linemen and linebackers."

Today teams limit hitting in practice to prevent injuries, though Johnson thinks that might be causing them.

"By us hitting as much as we hit in practice, I really think we had fewer injuries than they have today," Johnson says.

"I think there's something to it. The players got accustomed to taking a hit. When the first time they hit is on Sunday, it's an adjustment."

Johnson, 74, won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys and a national championship with the University of Miami, where he ran full-contact scrimmages daily. "The pro scouts used to love it," Johnson says. "They could really get a good evaluation."

Drills that make you cringe

Nebraska coach Mike Riley played at Alabama under Bear Bryant. He says there are "drills from the old days, even ones I participated in, that would make everybody cringe today."

He remembers at one coaching stop early in his 42-year career "one of the coaching points we used to tell kids was, 'Hit with your face.' Those are words that would be taboo today."

Riley, 64, recalls a drill where players would line up 10 yards apart and run full speed into each other: "And the emphasis from the coach was, 'Put your head in there.' I don't know how somebody didn't break a neck."

Riley warns parents against trusting their young players "to somebody who wants to be the next Vince Lombardi but doesn't actually know anything about making the game safe. As a parent or grandparent, I don't care about what offense or defense you run, but I want to know you were trained in how to play the game and how to teach the game."

Riley says he talks to athletic trainers and doctors 10 times as often as he used to. "That's a good thing," he says. "We get a medical report daily, which never used to happen." And if a concussion is suspected, "once that word is brought up you don't enter into any decision about him playing until the doctors give him back. There can never even be a discussion between you and the player."

Hanson, the high school coach, seconds that emotion. He says athletic trainers on site for practices and games is liberating for coaches.

"Any kind of injury before, as a high school coach, you had to deal with it yourself," Hanson says. "If a kid had a broken arm, you had to call the rescue people and make a determination of what happened. Now a football coach in Northern Virginia has no decisions to make about injuries or concussions. If a kid comes to you and tell you he's hurt, you send him to the trainer."

The drills are different now, but one thing never changes.

"The kids are the same," Hanson says. "The amount of information they have is so much more, but the kids are the same as they ever were."

Contributing: Lindsay Schnell

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November 16, 2017


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