Mike Tomlin is an admitted football lover. He recognizes that a lot of his successes in life are tied to the sport and to the men who coached him and taught him and impacted his life when he was an adolescent. Mike Tomlin also understands that football is under attack, that the sport must evolve if it's to do for future generations of young people what he is convinced it did for him.
And so he took time away from preparing for an NFL Draft that's now exactly three weeks away to stand at a podium and talk to a roomful of high school coaches, trainers, and administrators about concussions and head injuries during the day-long seminar titled: "High School Sports and Concussions: From Awareness to Prevention to Advancements in Treatment," which was presented by UPMC Sports Medicine and hosted by the Steelers at Heinz Field.
Every high school in the WPIAL was invited to attend this free event, and Tomlin led things off with a powerful and passionate speech in which he challenged the room to be part of seeing "concussions and player safety as our generation's opportunity to contribute to the evolution of the game of football."
"It's a pleasure for me to be here, and I mean that particularly because of the group I'm having an opportunity to address," began Tomlin. "My high school coaches were blueprints for me. I know that you know the power of your impact. I want to thank you for what it is you do, the lives you impact, the young people you have an opportunity to shape through your interactions."
Tomlin rarely reveals aspects of his personal life, but he made some exceptions on Thursday afternoon as a way of explaining why "football is the greatest game in the world, and I'll argue that to the day I die." He talked about changing the culture of the sport, not only with the professionals he works with daily but also the 14-15-year-olds like his sons who are playing a sport he believes can shape their lives positively as it did with his.
"I have this platform, and so I want to take opportunities like this to give back to the young people, to hopefully be impactful," said Tomlin. "To have an opportunity to help this group, to maybe provide some clarity in this area to this group, and to generate some thought and discussion along this topic, which will in turn move on to the young people you deal with day-to-day, it's exciting for me to have chance to talk to you today."
The seminar also included presentations from Ed Passino, the East Coast High School Regional Manager of USA Football on the Heads Up Program; from Dr. Josh Bloom on the on-field evaluation of concussion; from Dr. Anthony Kontos on distinguishing facts from fiction regarding concussion; and from Merril Hoge, a former NFL fullback whose career was ended by concussions in 1993 and currently an ESPN analyst and a consultant to Allegheny Health Network.
Each man had something worthwhile to present to the attendees, but Tomlin's message stood out among the rest because it served as a call-to-arms to high school football coaches, the very men Tomlin called the gatekeepers of the sport of football, "which we all love, and which, quite honestly, is under attack in a lot of ways, and some of them aren't very realistic. I'm going to talk about what is real, but I'm going to stay in my lane. I'm not going to pretend to be a doctor. I'm going to talk to you about the things (coaches) do day-to-day."
Tomlin then proceeded to do just that, stay in his lane and offer the coaches ideas on ways to incentivize player safety, on why it's important to avoid referring to concussions in flippant ways, on his strict adherence to a structure within the team where coaches coach and the trainers and medical staff administer to the injured. He offered them some catchphrases, because Tomlin understands how important those can be in instilling a message and then reinforcing it through constant repetition. And then you provide a reward to those who embody the words with their actions.
See what you hit. Don't hit the head; don't use the head. "Catchphrases are big in our game," said Tomlin. "There's memory associated with that. You know it's catching on when you hear them repeating it to one another, or them repeating it to you."
Tomlin explained how coaches can incentivize, by awarding helmet stickers for Form Tackle of the Week and the Form Block of the Week. He said he himself will point out instances and examples of this on video during meetings, not only examples of his players doing it correctly, but also of the upcoming opponent doing it correctly, and even when the video shows the opponent of the upcoming opponent doing it correctly.
"You don't need to be playing a game of football to give someone a reminder to get his head out of the game and work not to target the head of the people you compete against," said Tomlin. "I recall times when I was standing behind the secondary, with balls going down the middle, with balls going down the sideline, in situations where there would be confrontations if we were playing football, giving a small reminder. Don't hit the head. Don't use the head. A good coaching point. Concussions happen to defenders in those situations as often as receivers. It goes beyond keeping your opponent safe and respecting the game, but it's also critical in terms of keeping ourselves safe.
"I'm never going to tell you guys how to run your programs," said Tomlin. "A guy walking around all week with a big sledgehammer – that's great, that's a beautiful thing, because it encourages the attitude of hard and fair play that we desire. But be mindful of the criteria for those incentive-based programs, and what a great opportunity to reinforce the evolution of this game and the culture change by being inclusive in those incentive programs with things that back up the catchphrases and the teachings we use in this area."
Tomlin touched on the evolution of the way players are treated during practices, for example. The days when there were no water breaks, when the prevailing attitude was that water was for the weak. "We laugh at that now. It sounds medieval," said Tomlin. "The game is evolving, and I'm asking you to evolve with it."
If there is going to be a culture change in football, an evolution making the game safer while sustaining the teamwork and character-building elements of the sport that Tomlin is convinced shaped his life in a positive way, it must be embraced by the men who coach it at the youth and high school levels. That's when boys' bodies mature and their attitudes are formed, and it's critical to be delivering to that age group the proper message.
"We're gatekeepers, very impactful on the young people we deal with, and so we have to be very mindful of the words we use, and those words have to be consistent," Tomlin reminded the coaches. "It's our words and our actions, because the young people are watching it all, and so it goes beyond establishing these cute catchphrases that the guys are going to remember. Think about ways you can incentivize that, think about ways you can reinforce it with action.
"Player safety and concussions and head injuries are our generation's opportunity to not only safeguard the game but also to be active participants in the evolution of the game. This is our generation's cause as it relates to football."