Prep football teams working to make game safer

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With the start of a new pro football season, the NFL continues to make rule changes in an attempt to make the game safer for all involved.

Teams could face a 15-yard penalty and players could face possible ejection if officials perceive that a player lowers his head to deliver a hit. The rule has drawn both praise and ire from NFL fans and has the potential to affect football at the prep level.

Naturally, Foothill League coaches are in favor of any rule that could make the game even slightly safer, but also agree that avoidance of head injuries starts with learning the proper way to tackle at the prep and youth football levels.

“We’re working tremendously hard to make the game safer,” said Saugus coach Jason Bornn. “I can’t say the rules in the NFL trickle down, I think it trickles up.

“It’s only a matter of time before football, at least at the pro level, catches up to what youth football and prep football have caught up to,” he added.

In 2015, the National Federal Association of State High School Associations (NFHS) enacted a rule that said “No player or non-player shall make any contact with an opponent, including a defenseless player, which is deemed unnecessary or excessive and which incites roughness.”

Two years later, the NFHS clarified its description of a defenseless player as someone who is vulnerable to injury due to “his physical position and focus of concentration.” These players can include passers, receiver, sliding runners and runners whose forward progress is stopped.

“The helmet is not meant to be a weapon or something used to do harm on someone,” said Golden Valley coach Dan Kelley. “It’s for protection and you’re supposed to teach the tackling technique of your shoulder pads and proper sit up and wrapping your arms and driving your feet. We try to constantly teach that at the high school level.”

In fact, the Grizzlies spent over 15 minutes of Tuesday’s practice going over proper tackling techniques. Over the summer, players practice correct form on bags and in drills.

“If you’re going to try to limit any type of issue in the game, it’s going to be on the defense,” Canyon coach Rich Gutierrez said.

He also noted that helmet-to-helmet contact perception can also be a gray area and the perceptions of necessary punishment may differ from official to official in the NFL.

“Helmet to helmet, I’ve seen it for years,” he said. “It’s almost too subjective to make a decision. It’s a perfect tackle and it’s called for unnecessary roughness. Every (NFL) game I’ve watched, every five plays there’s unnecessary roughness or a personal foul or there’s something that’s coming about where you almost don’t want to watch it.”

The rule doesn’t look like it’s going to be repealed any time soon and as the NFL focuses more on concussions and head trauma issues, so do coaches and officials in the prep football ranks.

Gutierrez saw the dangers of concussions last season when his son, Anthony, collided with another player during a seven-on-seven contest and suffered an impact seizure. Saugus has implemented the use of “Guardian Caps,” a soft shell that can be attached to helmets, during practices.

Football has changed throughout the years, and concussion awareness has certainly caused a change in approach to how it’s played – whether on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons – in order to maintain the sport’s safety and consequently, participation numbers.

“It’s not about the total contact, helmet to helmet, how hard can I hit you with my helmet,” said Kelley. “We don’t want that and that’s not what we teach.

“That’s the big emphasis and I think the NFL has to do something like they are doing now to kind of give themselves some liability and some support that hey, they’re trying to prevent helmet to helmet and prevent long term head injuries and that’s the biggest thing.”

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