USA Football's safer play program adopted by 900 leagues nationwide

Randall Cunningham wants the game taught the proper way, so he has joined USA Football's player safety initiative as one of its ambassadors.

And the former Pro Bowl quarterback plans to teach, teach, teach.

"Kids are like sponges," Cunningham said, "so it's critical to have people who have been there doing the coaching. We need to have the right, knowledgeable people involved."

Cunningham is joined by Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders and 76 others who have played in the NFL as USA Football ambassadors, working with youth leagues in the Heads Up Football program. USA Football is the governing body for the sport in America.

More than 900 youth leagues across the nation have adopted the program, which emphasizes proper tackling technique — keep your head up — along with concussion recognition and response; coaching certifications; properly fitted equipment; and coaches trained to implement Heads Up Football.

The ambassadors will work alongside youth leagues, attending practices and games. Each league nominates a player safety coach who is trained by USA Football in its Heads Up program. Those coaches will then implement the safety practices in their leagues and monitor player safety protocols within the organization.

A $1.5 million grant from the NFL Foundation has helped launch the program.

"As chairman of the NFL Foundation and a parent of football players, I believe the Heads Up Football program is essential in making the game we all love safer for youth players," said Cowboys executive vice president Charlotte Jones Anderson.

Cunningham feels the same way, and he's adamant about ensuring that the educators are, well, highly educated in football.

"I thank God I had good coaches all my life, from Pop Warner on up," said Cunningham, who played 16 seasons with Philadelphia, Minnesota, Dallas and Baltimore. "I had coaches who did play the game, not just rah-rah guys. They came back from their football careers and sowed into the community. These guys who went to the NFL or went off and played in college, they have a lot more to give. You can't just wash away experience."

As a youth player, Cunningham recalls having four coaches on his team alone that had played in the NFL. Most of the others played in college.

He encourages everyone interested or involved in the sport at the youth level to reach out to such experienced athletes.

"Local schools have to want these guys to come in," he said, "and not be worried about taking over the program, but to get them teaching these kids the right skills."