When Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay spoke Saturday to dozens of youth football officials about better protecting players, it wasn't just the health of the players at stake. The well-being of football might be on the line.
As information has surfaced about long-term dangers of head injuries, particularly when an injured person resumes contact too soon, youth player participation has dropped.
So when McKay, chairman of the NFL's rules-making competition committee, told youth football officials that they have to help the sport by teaching better techniques and paying more attention to safety, he was tending to the game's present and future.
"We have to set the right example, but I think we also have to educate through the lowest levels that we play football of the importance of awareness, the importance of (concussion) protocol," McKay said. "I think that starts with coaches and parents."
A decline in football participation isn't attributable entirely to injury news, but it didn't help a few months ago when President Barack Obama said in an interview with The New Republic, "I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football."
USA Football, the governing body for youth and amateur football in the U.S., is endowed by the NFL. USA Football staged Saturday's forum at Pace Academy, an Atlanta private school that began playing football in 2009.
USA Football's "Heads Up Football" — http://usafootball.com/headsup — is a pilot program designed to instruct coaches how to teach young players safe tackling techniques, among other initiatives — all with an eye on safety. All NFL teams are pushing it. Saturday's five-hour USA Football forum centered on Heads Up with other topics.
Some new nuances go against the old-school grain — no more setting a tackling target (a ball carrier's chest), no more wrapping up (instead going with a fork-lift motion), and using the front of the shoulder (not the top) for impact.
Former Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry (1980-'87), a USA Football master trainer, said: "It's tough to teach an old dog new tricks. The way we were taught, which was, 'Be tough, man up, suck it up,' is not the way to teach now. We're going to play tough, but we're going to play smart and safe."
A big part of the Heads Up Football plan calls for players to admit when they are injured, or tattle on teammates when they're knocked woozy. It also suggests that parents and players to be educated ahead of time about concussion symptoms and the recovery process, and that youth organizations employ a dedicated player safety coach.
A pair of former Falcons, wide receiver Brian Finneran and defensive back Coy Wire, are USA Football ambassadors and more than 70 former NFL players are involved in every NFL outpost). They all said that honesty and peer-to-peer accountability is critical.
"I had my share of concussions," said Finneran, now an Atlanta sports talk radio co-host. "I played with guys who were half knocked out, and I probably did it, too. Be aware, be involved. Guys think they're warriors."
Wire said he knew the risks of football, but sometimes played when he shouldn't have.
"Toughness is like a badge of honor, right?" Wire told youth officials. "I think one of the best ways that we can make this movement happen is to get kids involved. Help them understand that a head injury is different than any other injury.
"Get your kids to look at teammates as family, and get them helping. ... 'Hey coach, we need to check out Johnny.'"
Football-mad Georgia is not among states that have shown a significant drop in high school football participation.
California Interscholastic Federation data showed 103,088 playing high school football last fall versus 107,916 in 2007 — a 4 percent drop. Participation was down 6.9 percent last fall in Michigan, and 3.5 percent in Maryland according to different reports.
Even with McKay representing the NFL, and several dozen youth commissioners representing several hundred leagues around Georgia, a man in the middle sounded perhaps the loudest alarm.
Ralph Swearngin, executive director of the Georgia High School Association — which has more than 400 football-playing schools — said, "those in athletics have got to change the culture of our sport or we're going to lose our sport ... people are going to come in and make changes and ruin the sport."
On April 23, Georgia governor Nathan Deal signed into law the, "Return to Play" act requiring schools to provide to parents information on concussions and establish protocols for students with head injuries. Many states have similar legislation.
Ralph Clinton, president of the North Metro Football League that is comprised of about two dozen youth organizations and more than 100 teams on the north side of Atlanta, said that this summer every NMFL will adopt the, "Heads Up Football" program.
"Last year we had over 1,600 kids," Clinton said. "The Heads Up Football is very important to us because of the tackling. We strive to teach fundamentals. Heads Up is a good resource for teaching those coaches how to teach those kids how to play football."
Swearngin, the GHSA czar, summarized: "It's risk minimization. We cannot guarantee safety, but we can certainly take steps to reduce risk."