B-A, like schools across the country, is addressing the way in which players tackle
November 3, 2017
American football has always been a controversial force in our country. The sport, with its high rate of collisions and aggressive tendencies, has been a lightning-rod for criticism due to its often decimating injuries on the field.
A large part of that is due to the systems of tackling taught to players throughout their development.
The way players hit could be a danger to their health, and by using their head as another limb – one that they use quite unsparingly – many players have developed complications later in life.
At Bellwood-Antis, the football program has taken a stand against this methodology and in doing so made a rough sport a little safer.
Football’s dangerous history
Football in 2017 is played differently than in the past. Players are bigger, stronger and faster, and the equipment, including the helmet, has evolved to be much more protective. Studies studies are showing that this may not be as good a development as we once thought. One study from the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that 99% of former NFL players were posthumously diagnosed with CTE, a brain disease caused by repeated impacts to the head. In other words, people are dying much earlier because of football.
However it’s not the first time people have died due to collisions in football. Throughout the early 20th century, football proved to be as dangerous as today. In 1905, before there was a forward pass, and padding was an afterthought, about 20 people died from football alone. Though reports vary, it’s know many players were killed due to hemorrhaging in the brain. Newspapers of the day were divided, half supporting football, claiming a change in rules would be preposterous, and the other side fighting to make the sport safer.
In central Pennsylvania, too, there has been debate over football’s safety. In 1897, in a precursor to the Backyard Brawl, the annual rivalry football game between Tyrone and Bellwood-Antis, a player representing Tyrone was killed because of a tackle from a player on the Bellwood side. After this, along with backlash from the community, high school football was banned for nearly 25 years in the borough of Tyrone.
It’s easy to believe that today is a different story. Players wear protective equipment and rules are standardized so that players are better protected. However, football’s safety is still in question.
In fact, according to a report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, last year alone saw a drop of over 25,000 football players nationally.
How we solve the issue of safety becomes the crux of the debate.
Some parties choose to support a change in rules to cut down or eliminate the massive amount of collisions in the sport, while others believe there is no problem, and others have decided to switch to a new system of tackling.
Bellwood-Antis and its coaches have decided to embrace this new system of tackling.
Rugby tackling at B-A
The inspiration for this newer style of tackling is derived from rugby. A similar sport to American football in style, rugby has one noticeable difference – their players don’t wear protective equipment. In theory, by adopting rugbys system of tackling, where players aren’t usually injured despite wearing much less padding than their football playing counterparts, head injuries are better prevented.
This new rugby style with the emphasis away from using your head has already started to spread throughout the country. Pete Carroll, the head coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, pushed the movement into the national spotlight when he published a 15 minute video on what he called ‘hawk tackling.’ Dan Quinn, one of Carroll’s former assistant coaches on the Seahawks, praised hawk tackling as not only a safer, but more effective tackling system. It places the emphasis on tackling near the hip instead of the head, and wrapping to bring down a ball carrier.
The key is shoulder placement, taking the head out of the tackle as much as possible.
Since the initial release of the video, hawk tackling has seen a trickle-down effect through the lower levels of football, including the high school game, where Bellwood-Antis’ coaches decided to employ the tactic.
John Hayes, the Blue Devils’ head coach for more than 30 seasons, took an interest in the style after Carroll’s video was released and, much like Carroll, Hayes has decided to get help from local rugby clubs to institute the tactic. In his pursuit of teachers he found Joe Pullara, a local coach for the Hollidaysburg rugby club.
Pullara, a former All-American rugby player at Penn State, has played a key part in teaching Bellwood-Antis’ football players the rugby style of tackle. He described the rugby tackle as being similar to a traditional football tackle.
However according to Pullara, “The biggest key difference is that you’re taking your head out of the tackle.”
“The rugby tackling is an attempt to get the head out of the action in order to hopefully prevent more head injuries.”
Use in the system
This football season marks Coach Hayes’ third consecutive year teaching rugby style tackle. Like in college ranks as well, as the NFL, the tactic has taken a while to stick, but according to Hayes it gets better each season it’s taught.
“I think we’re adapting pretty well to it. It’s a process, habits are difficult to change. This is our third year and each year, I think, we get a little better at it,” Hayes explained.
This year, though, B-A’s coaches have taken an extra step to promote safety in tackling. Team staff from the high school level to the junior high, have gone above and beyond to ensure their players are safe. The coaches decided to take extra courses on safe tackling which gained the school the respected status of being an official USA Football school. This title means that the staff is trained to teach ‘heads-up tackling,’ USA Football’s version of the rugby tackle.
Assistant coach Nick Lovich explainedthe significance of ‘heads-up tacklings’ as different than what he was coached, but a much safer tackle through and through.
“You’re keeping your head out and your eyes are up. It’s just a different technique that’s making the game safer,” Lovrich said.
Junior High head coach Charlie Burch echoed Lovrich’s, adding that the rugby style tackle provides “a much more organized system of tackling than we’ve had before.”
Does it work?
Coach Hayes has seen much change in his extensive career as Bellwood-Antis’ head coach. He’s seen the introduction and utilization of video analysis in the game, as well as countless other innovations in equipment and the way his players don it, but this style of tackling, perhaps surprisingly, is not new to the coach.
“It’s actually going back to the way of tackling many years ago when the shoulder was the primary force, but with the advancement of helmets and faceguards and things like that, it became far more advantageous or desirable to get the head involved and consequently, we’ve found the results of that have been a little more dangerous than what they may have thought originally,” Hayes reflected.
The other Blue Devil coaches backed Hayes in his support of the style, but also brought up the very real challenge of retraining players in using the tackle.
“Sometimes it’s hard because you have to break habits of people who’ve done the same thing all their life, but we’re trying to make it a bit safer, which is a good thing,” explained Lovrich.
Hayes also realizes this, along with the sometimes dangerous split-second decisions needed in a game like football.
“You have to understand that when you get into an instantaneous situation you often rely and do whatever you can, and often times that’s a revert back to the habits you have,” he said. “We’ve seen players that have used it, and it’s very sound, but by the same token it’s not 100 percent used right now and probably never will be.”
It’s still a process to train players to give up natural instincts but it absolutely has effected the way players tackle. Take Eric Morder, for example. The linebacker claimed that his tackling style has been affected by the training the team took on the past three years.
“In open field – instead of reaching and grabbing – I break down and put a shoulder into them; it allows me to make the tackle effectively every time,” Morder assured.
Pullara, also understands that players won’t always properly tackle, but overall, he believes football is safe for children to play ins pite of declining participation numbers.
“I would say there’s concern, but there’s always concern in anything you do in sport, you do something wrong and get injured no matter what sport or activity you do, but if you’re doing the proper techniques, they’re taught to keep you safe,” said Pullara.
“I’ll let my kid play,” he concluded simply.