When USA Football created a program to teach safe tackling to youngsters, it projected reaching a few hundred football organizations throughout the nation.
In one year, Heads Up Football was adopted by nearly 2,800 groups. As the second season of the educational program begins, there's no telling how widespread it will become.
The NFL has noticed, providing USA Football, the national governing body for the sport, with a five-year, $45 million grant. There are nearly 11,000 football leagues in the United States, and USA Football is hoping Heads Up Football someday becomes a teaching tool for all of them.
"Pioneering is exactly what it is turning out to be," former NFL running back Merril Hoge, now a member of USA Football's Board of Director, says of Heads Up Football, which teaches youngsters to take the head out of tackling. "Anytime you find you need to do something you haven't been doing because of a lack of information, you absolutely need to do something. We've done a lot of work and put in a lot of man-hours and have people involved who care about the kids."
Among those people is Gabe Infante, the head coach at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's Prep and a master trainer in the program. Infante clearly knows his football, having led the Hawks to the Pennsylvania AAA state title last season.
He was drawn to Heads Up Football because, for years, he's been searching for a teaching progression that made tackling safer. He likes the flexibility to scale down or ramp up the elements of the program to fit the audience, while still focusing on the key points of the techniques USA Football is emphasizing.
"It's really efficient and you can reinforce things. There's a way to measure the different aspects of tackling and then go back and work on that particular part of tackling, all the while stressing we are trying to make it safer," Infante says.
The key components of Heads Up Football are coaching education and certification; equipment fitting; concussion education and response; heat and hydration; the establishment of a player safety coach; and tackling with the head up and out of contact.
All of that makes perfect sense, yet there had been no formal program incorporating all of them.
Now there is, with the aim to spread Heads Up Football across the nation on the youth and high school levels. USA Football is in the process of hiring more master trainers, expecting to add between 50 and 70 to the first-year roster of about 30.
Infante sees the high school connection as essential.
"I had a conversation with someone in the NFL and I said the high school coach is critical to this program not only continuing to succeed, but grow," Infante said. "The high school coach in the area is the guy who supports the youth programs, the guy who is looked up to on every level, the guy the kids want to play for some day. The more high schools applied to the program, it will legitimize the program even more. They prepare their kids for high school. If this is part of the high school curriculum, we will see more youth coaches embrace it."
Participation numbers have been down in youth football and in most sports. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in high school football was down 2.3 percent in the 2012-13 season compared to the 2008-09 season.
Some of that drop-off is attributed to parents' concerns about safety in football. Hoge, whose history of concussions led to other health issues and his retirement from the NFL, recognizes such fears.
He also champions the value of programs that are transparent and designed to make sports safer for everyone who plays.
"The ultimate objective is to educate everyone who needs to know more about the trauma in sport, and when it happens, that the right action takes place," Hoge says.
To coaches like Infante, Heads Up Football simplifies nearly everything, benefiting folks whether they are working with pee wees starting out in football, or high schoolers with college scholarships in sight.
"Football is like English," he says. "We speak one language with a lot different dialects. Sometimes it's like we are all speaking a different language. At least when it comes to one of the most important aspects of the game, tackling, to speak the same language, to agree on certain principles, that would be huge. And that is what I think you are going to see with Heads Up Football."
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