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THE tremendous hit left the opponent crumpled to the ground, the Columbus East fans snapping to their feet, and the Olympians defensive players jumping excitingly around the turf, pumping their fists.
It was the kind of moment that football fans pay to see, a collision sport delivering the goods.
The play also delivered something else. A flag.
Although the hit was delivered with all intentions of being within the rules, the two opponents were twisting and turning, leading to unintentional head- to-head contact. A personal foul was called on Columbus East.
It was the kind of contact that used to be encouraged, but now with the brutality of football under the microscope, all efforts are being made to avoid such hits.
No one really was at fault,
but the defensive player was penalized.
On the sideline, East defensive coordinator Eddie Vogel was upset, knowing his player had followed the safe tackling techniques that he stresses in every practice.
“I get frustrated,” Vogel said. “But hey, I agree with the rule. I want our kids to be safe.”
It is the kind of attitude that football coaches all over the nation might have to embrace as football safety continues to be a major issue.
“Our game is at a critical juncture,” said Columbus North head coach Tim Bless. “We’ve gotten beaten up lately, and we need to be proactive.”
‘THE ONLY WAY TO GO’
Being proactive has meant developing the technology to provide the players with better equipment. It also has meant rule changes designed to decrease the amount of concussions.
“We just purchased brand new helmets through Riddell,” said Gabe Miller, who is the PAAL athletics director for Foundation for Youth in Columbus. “But that doesn’t matter if we are not teaching kids the proper way to tackle.”
While coaches such as Bless and Columbus East head coach Bob Gaddis have spent years learning the proper instruction for safe tackling, youth football coaches often come and go depending on the age and interest of their children. It is not reasonable to expect parents volunteering their time to understand all the nuances of making a safe tackle.
Even so, from the PAAL to the high school level, coaches and administrators connected with the game would like to see everyone on the same page so that safe tackling becomes instinctive.
“We are teaching USA Football’s ‘Heads Up Tackling’ program,” Miller said. “Our coaches can go to USA Football’s website and become certified. They watch a video that includes drills that teach proper tackling.”
Steve Blystone, a local PAAL football coach for nine years, became certified a year ago.
“This is the only way to go, particularly with our sport under so much scrutiny,” said Blystone, who coaches the third- and fourth-grade Vikings. “You watch a two-hour video and then you take a quiz. If you pass, you can move to the next level.”
Both Gaddis and Bless said they incorporate the important features of “Heads Up Tackling” into every practice.
“Parents are looking over the fence,” said North defensive coordinator Jason Perry. “Athletic directors are looking over the fence. They all want to hear those buzz words.”
FEET, WINGS, SINKING, ARMS
During North’s practice, Perry will stop a drill if a defensive player drops his head to make a hit. Preparation for the next opponent takes a backseat to safety.
“The natural reaction is to duck your head,” Perry said. “We consistently talk about feet, wings, sinking and arms.”
Perry explained how getting the proper base — having the feet positioned properly — is the first step toward a safe tackle. He then showed how a player gets his arms back (wings) to pull his shoulders back. Getting the shoulders back in turn forces the player to lead with his chest and not his head. Sinking refers to becoming compact so that a defender has the leverage to explode into a ball carrier by leading his chest instead of reaching, which drops the head. The “arms” part finishes off the tackle.
Terminology at North and East already is fairly similar and most likely will be more so as the “Heads Up” program is taught at all levels.
However, terminology alone won’t help if youth coaches don’t embrace the task of learning the proper instructional techniques.
“Our coaches tend to move along with their kids,” Blystone said. “So we have coaches who never have played football. For a long time, it was taught to lead with your head into the belly or the back. (Safe tackling) has been a difficult road to embrace.
“And trying to teach third-graders can be like herding cats. That’s why it is so important for all youth programs to participate in this USA Football program. I have one player on my team who is 137 pounds and players who are 52 and 53 pounds. This program teaches fundamentals of safe tackling and gives coaches the tools to teach properly.”
At the moment, the PAAL does not require its coaches to be certified with the “Heads Up” program.
“About 95 percent of our coaches participate,” said Miller, who noted that the PAAL was trying to raise funds so that all of its coaches could be certified.
‘SAFETY AT ALL LEVELS’
Those PAAL coaches also are encouraged to attend the camp offered by the East and North coaching staffs in the summer.
“The high school coaches are very passionate about safe tackling,” said Miller, whose program hosted 20 teams and about 300 players last season.
“We have to do a good job and make sure we get with the youth coaches,” said Vogel, who has coached high school football since 1995. “Your varsity teams are only as good as your youth coaches. And we are going to teach the kids the safe way to play.”
Gaddis said it is a responsibility of his staff to share information about safety.
“We’ve got to be aware of safety at all levels, not just the high school level,” Gaddis said. “We have to make the information accessible to every young man. For the future of our game, we have to address these issues. It can’t be overlooked.
“It should be mandatory that middle school and high school coaches be trained, and there should be a universal way of training the kids.”
Even if the players get great safety training, the high school coaching staffs continue to emphasize the fundamentals of safe tackling.
“We don’t assume our players know any of it,” Vogel said. “Every kid needs to be taught the proper way and the safe way.”
Vogel can be heard yelling “Chest up, chest up,” at his team’s practice sessions. The emphasis on safety never ends.
Both programs also incorporate the safety aspects of tackling into their offseason workouts.
“Absolutely it is one of the biggest things we teach in the offseason,” Perry said. “Body awareness and balance. There is a reactive component to safe tackling.
“We are trying to train them to keep their center of gravity low. We want to shrink them down, drop their hips and keep them compact. Kids try to take everything on with their shoulders. We teach them to take it on with their chest.”
‘FOOTBALL HAS EVOLVED’
Even if all teaching aspects are followed to the letter, safe tackling is not a perfect science. Players come together at all types of angles with sudden changes of direction the nature of the game.
“In my lifetime of coaching, it has been give-and-take,” Bless said. “The rule changes are all about safety. There have been advances in safety technology, but the collisions are stronger and faster.
“I do know that America loves football.”
Vogel believes that football is a safer sport today.
“Football has evolved,” he said. “It used to be banging it down someone’s throat. Teams are not banging each other as much today.”
Perry, who is in his 19th year of coaching high school football, agrees that today’s version of football is less dangerous.
“In the 1950s, you had 180-pound linemen and now you have linemen 280 pounds running the same speeds,” he said. “I know there is a perception that football is more dangerous than it has been.
“But if we see anything that is unsafe during practice, we are diligent in stopping the drill. We make sure the kids wear the equipment properly.
“Those of us who have been in the trenches have seen the injuries. But this sport is as safe as it ever has been. The equipment is so much better, and we don’t have as many kamikaze kids.”
Tonight’s football games
COLUMBUS EAST VS. new albany
WHERE: Columbus East High School
WHEN: 7 p.m.
RECORDS: New Albany 3-1, 2-0 Hoosier Hills Conference;
Columbus East 4-0, 2-0 HHC.
LAST WEEK: New Albany defeated Bedford North Lawrence 48-0; Columbus East defeated Jennings County 63-10.
COLUMBUS NORTH VS. terre haute south
WHERE: Columbus North High School
WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
RECORDS: Terre Haute South 2-2, 1-1 Conference Indiana; Columbus North 1-3, 1-1 CI
LAST WEEK: Terre Haute South lost to Perry Meridian 43-35; Columbus North defeated Franklin Central 30-8.
seymour vs. bedford north lawrence
WHERE: Seymour High School
WHEN: 7 p.m.
RECORDS: Bedford North Lawrence 0-4, 0-2 Hoosier Hills
Conference; Seymour 0-4, 0-3 HHC
LAST WEEK: Bedford North Lawrence lost 48-0 to New Albany; Seymour lost 84-43 to Floyd Central.
jennings county vs. madison
WHERE: Jennings County High School
WHEN: 7 p.m.
RECORDS: Madison 2-2, 0-2 Hoosier Hills Conference; Jennings County 0-4, 0-2 HHC
LAST WEEK: Madison lost 34-11 to Jeffersonville; Jennings County lost 63-10 to Columbus East.
edinburgh vs. Indianapolis tindley
WHERE: Indianapolis Arlington High School
WHEN: 7 p.m.
RECORDS: Edinburgh 2-2; Indianapolis Tindley 2-2
LAST WEEK: Edinburgh lost to South Decatur 38-14; Indianapolis Tindley lost to Indianapolis Shortridge 62-0.
brown county vs. indian creek
WHERE: Brown County High School
WHEN: 7 p.m.
RECORDS: Indian Creek 2-2; Brown County 3-1
LAST WEEK: Indian Creek defeated Providence 41-21;
Brown County defeated South Vermillion 42-13.
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