USA Football is fighting the fight


(Fifth in a series)

Scott Hallenbeck is a realist. His profession, his passion, is football, and in his world the sport is in danger. Maybe not the kind of danger where its existence is being threatened – at least certainly not yet – but the kind of danger where failing to recognize the current climate and then deal with it could end up sending football down the path once traveled by boxing.

Scott Hallenbeck is the Executive Director of USA Football, an organization that serves as the "Official Youth Football Development Partner of the NFL, the NFL Players Association, all 32 NFL teams, and the Atlantic Coast Conference." That's the way it's described in USA Football's 2011 Annual Report, but it's nothing but a PR firm's way of saying that Hallenbeck and his people are the boots on the ground fighting the fight for football where it's most vulnerable.

"The first questions we always get from parents: Why should I let my kid play football? Why should I take the risk?" said Hallenbeck. "There are no easy answers there. There really aren't. I can talk about how the rewards of football out-weigh the risk, and the life lessons the sport teaches, and all the values of the game. They don't want to hear all that. What they really want: Look me in the eye and tell me you care about my kid, you're going to make some changes to this game to create a better and safer experience and environment, and then prove it to me."

USA Football is not in the business of robotically defending football, but instead seeks to be at the forefront of its evolution. There is no stubbornness in Hallenbeck, no blind allegiance to the past. He understands the concerns parents have, and he wants to address the issues and fix them rather than assuage the people voicing them. He comes across as reasoned and reasonable, but he understands he lives in a reactionary world.

"Everybody wants immediate decisions," said Hallenbeck. "You go to Congress and they want immediate decisions. We don't have all the answers. Research takes time. We don't have the medical perspective yet, and that is absolutely paramount to knowing what steps you have to take to make this game better and safer. We have half of what we need in terms of what we need to proceed, and that half is football people making decisions on how we think we can make this game better and safer while trying to keep parents engaged by explaining to them we are taking proactive steps that are smart and reasonable."

The proactive steps are contained within a program developed by USA Football. It's called Heads Up Football, and it uses a three-step game plan to ensure safer play. The plan starts with USA Football training what they call "player safety coaches," and then those player safety coaches going back to their leagues that are located all over the country to oversee and be the go-to guy in their community, while also educating the parents as to their role in all of this. USA Football has been notified by insurance provider AIG that it has evaluated Heads Up Football and will discount rates to users of the program, and as Hallenbeck explained, "This to me is one of the best endorsements we have. ... The insurance industry, they speak from the wallet."

The linchpin of the Heads Up Football program, and by extension the linchpin of any successful campaign to prove to parents that it's still OK to allow their kids to play football, are the guys who are coaching those kids. USA Football serves about 3 million kids between the ages of 6-14 who participate in organized tackle football leagues. Well, at least it used to be 3 million, but Hallenbeck offers the fact that participation declined by 6 percent in 2012 to drop the overall number to 2.8 million, and he does so as a warning.

"There is no question in my mind that the coaches are the linchpin to this," said Hallenbeck. "That is added responsibility for us to do a better job of teaching them, and for them to be willing to change and evolve."

At the youth level, coaches often are just ordinary dads drawn into it by a son who wants to play, and USA Football has an education program for them. It's a 16-chapter online course that includes some basic coaching philosophy, plus the teaching of fundamentals, equipment fitting, heat and hydration preparedness, concussion awareness, and heads-up tackling. According to Hallenbeck, it's the only nationally accredited coaching education program in all of football.

But that's not good enough, not really. Some guy passing an online course doesn't make him capable of teaching it to a group of 8-year-olds, and even Hallenbeck isn't trying to sell you that.

"As much as I want to have great confidence that once they go through the online program that they're transferring all of it to the field," said Hallenbeck, "there's no way to prove that unless you have someone physically there, feet on the ground, checking it out. That is the essence of Heads Up Football."

Leagues participating in Heads Up Football are committed to having all of their coaches complete the online education program, and then from those ranks is a player-safety coach selected. Ideally, the player-safety coach is someone with some experience, maybe five years coaching at different youth levels, who is willing to give up coaching his own team to enter a training program run by USA Football with heavy support from the NFL. The player-safety coaches then gather at one of 100 different regional sites – two in every state, with 50 percent of the grand total in underserved communities – to be taught by USA Football's Master Trainers. A train the trainer model.

Last weekend, March 2-3 in Indianapolis, the first Heads Up Football Master Trainer workshop was held. There, 21 Master Trainers, including some of the nation's top high school football coaches and some former NFL and college players, were exposed to the intricacies of being responsible for teaching the program to what USA Football hopes will become a growing web of competence. And understand that these Master Trainers have some credentials: Chuck Kyle, the head coach at Cleveland St. Ignatius High School, has won 11 Ohio Division I state titles; John Roderique, the head coach at Webb City High School in Missouri, has won eight state championships and was an assistant with 1991 NCAA Division II national champion Pittsburg State University; and Artie Gigantino was a special teams coordinator and linebackers coach for the Oakland Raiders.

"These are the guys who go back and have a Heads Up Football coaches clinic, where they will sit in front of all those player safety coaches appointed by their different youth leagues, and then they will assess and verify," said Hallenbeck. "It will be, 'OK, show me how to fit equipment. Explain to me the concussion protocol.' All the things taught in the online course."

With the idea being that those player safety coaches then go back to the local communities to be the overseer of the program there.

"This has never been done before in football," said Hallenbeck, "a whole new approach – more complex, more tedious – for teaching this game. We might find ourselves taking a step back before we go two steps forward, but the fact of the matter is if we're going to change the culture of football then this is the kind of step that has to be taken. It's a complex game to teach, and now we know enough about brain injury and other safety concerns that these are the kinds of progressive steps that need to happen."

The Master Trainers teach the player safety coaches who are there to guide the youth football coaches in their communities, but for the whole thing to come together to maximum effectiveness the parents have to be engaged, have to be made aware of what is being taught and how they can help in keeping their child safe. Parents can be taught to understand when a headache might be more than a headache, because a concussion could take 72 hours to present itself. Parents can be taught to help with equipment fitting, because a helmet might need an adjustment after a haircut, for example. Parents can be sure their child has a mouthpiece, a simple and very inexpensive piece of safety equipment, and that he brings that mouthpiece to every practice and game. And then over the course of a season, the player safety coach is charged with re-visiting the teams in his league to make sure the proper things continue to be taught in the right way.

"There have never been standards in youth football or high school football. No one has ever checked," said Hallenbeck. "We need to put those systems in place now.

"Just because of the Heads Up Football program, USA Football is more relevant than it's ever been, and it all traces back to the safety issue. Youth coaches, high school athletic directors, they all need to turn to somebody they trust. And most importantly are the parents. Parents who have seen what we teach have come to us and said they are more comfortable with the sport. Heads-Up Football is not just a bunch of people talking. We're demonstrating to them, we're putting systems in place, we're engaging the parents. That's why I think we're going to have a great impact with this program."

But even with all of this, it still would be foolish to believe the problem has been solved. Remember, Scott Hallenbeck is a realist.

"I think this game has to evolve," he said. "Does it have to evolve to the point where we're taking the facemask off or going back to leather helmets? By no means do I feel any of that's in the immediate future, or a part of the future at all. The steps we're taking are good ones: getting back to the teaching the proper fundamentals; getting back to requirements and standards and best practices; and definitely continuing to look at equipment, even though I know there's never going to be any such thing as a concussion-proof helmet. This is a complex problem, and I believe this is a comprehensive approach. Heads Up Football is a good start, but I don't think it's a panacea and has all the answers.

"I believe football can be better and safer, absolutely, but it has to evolve."

NEXT: NFL concussion test, with real-time resultsFOOTBALL'S FUTURE: ANOTHER PERSPECTIVEPart 1: Tomlin: Football is a teaching tool for young menPart 2: Many pros allow their boys to playPart 3: Blaming football is easy, not correctPart 4: Ilkin: You know what you signed on for

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