From tough tackles to homemade brownies- How one man in Seattle is trying to save Football
It’s a familiar scene that plays in towns big-and-small throughout our country every Friday night.
Yellow school busses pull up to a stadium; unload a bunch of teenagers wearing football jerseys and several coaches in matching polo shirts.
A dozen pom-pom waving cheerleaders welcome them while the marching band plays a slightly off-key version of Crazy Train.
The booster club has a table set-up selling brownies, next to the band parents who are raising money for the trip to Disney World, while some guy in a hat walks through the bleachers selling tickets for the 50-50 raffle.
High school football is a distinctively American institution, one that brings communities together and helps teach those who participate so many important life lessons.
However, concerns about player safety have impacted the sport. The number of high school football players in this country dropped by nearly 26,000 participants last year, according a report from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
That concerns people like Tom Bainter, the highly successful head football coach at Bothell High School near Seattle.
Some background first: Bainter grew up in Seattle, was the captain, quarterback and MVP of his high school team. Played college ball at Western Washington University before getting into coaching.
For the past 28 years, Tom’s been a high school coach and teacher. He’s in his 18th season as Bothell’s head coach where he’s won six King County Championships including the 2014 Washington State title. He has two sons, including one who’s the backup quarterback on this year’s team.
He’s a highly respected gentleman who was the Running Backs Coach for the USA Junior National Football team in 2009, where he coached former Virginia Tech and NY Giants star David Wilson.
So Bainter can talk football, and X’s-and-O’s, and tell great stories of glory and championship seasons.
But he’s concerned about his sport and player safety, and that’s why he’s a National Master Trainer for Heads Up Football, where he trains other coaches in concussion prevention awareness and other safety issues.
“It’s a concern,” Bainter told me while sitting at a table in the school’s cafeteria. “How we coach kids today, how we teach them to tackle, is different than when I played. Different when I started in coaching.”
Five years ago, USA Football started the Heads Up program in Northern Virginia. The goal was to teach proper tackling technique, concussion awareness, and equipment fitting.
“Heads Up Football has changed the way we play and the way we coach,” Bainter said. “We have a consistent way of how we teach and the terms we use from youth football, to junior varsity, to varsity and on-up.”
And it might save the game.
To Painter and other high school coaches who are participating, what’s important is that terms and techniques used in high school are used in college, and hopefully in the NFL.
“Breaking position. Buzzing the feet. Hit Position. Shoot. And the Rip,” Bainter said. “The rip is knuckles-up, arm movement.”
Bainter explained that years ago, players were taught to put their head in front of the ball carrier when making a tackle, and thus would often bend at the waist. That puts the defender in a dangerous position for his head, neck and spine.
“We want the contact point to be the tops of their jersey numbers and the front of the shoulders.”
Now you hear coaches talk about tracking the near the hip, maintaining leverage, hitting the thighs of the ballcarrier with the leverage shoulder, wrapping up and driving for five steps.
The key is sharing the same terminology in youth programs, continuing through high school, college and NFL levels.
At halftime of a recent game, a hundred youth football players from this Seattle suburb were introduced to the crowd. Their jerseys might go down to their knees -- fashion isn't important when you're 7-years-old and wearing both the hometown uniform and a huge grin-- but each kid on that field knew the Heads Up technique. 'Hit Position." "Shoot." "Rip."
“We’ve got Coach (Rocky) Seto of the Seahawks involved teaching shoulder tackling,” Bainter said. “When our kids see someone in our town (Seto is a former assistant head coach of the Seahawks and USC Trojans) using the same terminology we use, that’s impactful on them.”
The week I visited with Coach Bainter, a young man named Rob Grays, a 19-year-old cornerback from Midwestern State University in Texas, died after he was injured making a tackle during his team’s game with Texas A&M Kingsville.
“He’s made this tackle hundreds of times, but it was just one of those situations that landed wrong,” Kyle Williams, interim athletic director, told the school newspaper, The Wichitan.
That tragic story is one that greatly disturbed Coach Painter.
“Heads Up tackling protects both the offense and defensive player. When you see rules that penalize a player for targeting, they’re designed to protect both players, not just the person with the ball.”
Heads Up Football and Bainter are teaching more than just tackling too. Hydration, proper equipment fitting, and sudden cardiac arrest are atop the list as well.
“Did you know that SCA is the number one cause of death among high school athletes?,” Bainter asked. “We as coaches need to understand the importance of having properly trained staff.”
From Fairfax County in Northern Virginia to King County in the Pacific Northwest, coaches like Bainter and many others in Heads Up Football are trying to improve the game at the youth and high school level by encouraging and teaching player safety.
The future of the game is on the line.
And for those of us who enjoy a good tackle – as well as a homemade brownie from the booster club on a Friday night - that’s a good thing.