In late May under thunderheads and a soaking rain, 17 football players at Delaware County Christian School engaged in a variety of drills no different than those staged by any other team. Linemen practiced making quick first steps. Quarterbacks ducked pass rushers and fired passes. Running backs worked on ball security.
Pretty typical stuff—only they were preparing for something quite atypical. Beginning in mid-September, the Knights will play eight-man football.
Delco Christian endured a 2018 season without the sport, due to what head coach Lloyd Hill describes as a perfect storm of graduations, injuries and students not returning to school. By removing three players from the field, the Knights hope to build a sustainable model for the sport’s future at the school. “Our community has only had football since 2010, but there was a noticeable gap in the community spirit when we weren’t playing on Saturday nights,” says athletic director Reggie Parks. “It was a true family event. In mid-September, I started talking with administrators about how to get football back.”
Over eight seasons, the Knights claimed two District I Class A titles, posted a 49-34 record and won one Bicentennial Athletic League championship. But with only 25 players on the roster late last August and the opener just a few days away, Hill informed his players that the season would be cancelled. Many in the community were saddened by the news. During an October homecoming celebration, a touch football game at Delco Christian generated so much enthusiasm that Parks and other administrators knew a solution had to be found. “That game solidified it,” Parks says.
Now, the Knights join Valley Forge Military Academy, Perkiomen School and Mercersburg Academy as the state’s only eight-man programs. But those schools expect to have plenty of company over the next several years. “Smaller schools are heading in the eight-man direction,” says Hill.
Though this version of the game is hardly widespread throughout the area, it provides more evidence that football is in a state of flux. As studies pile up about the long-term dangers of concussions and blows to the head, and tragedies involving former NFL players continue to be documented, parents are less inclined to allow their kids to play. Granted, there’s no direct evidence that the move to eight-man football is directly related to concussion concerns. But schools everywhere are working to make the game safer.
According to a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of players on 11-man football teams is down 6.5 percent from a 1,110,527 peak in 2009-10. A study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association found that tackle football participation among U.S. children ages 6-17 was down 3 percent in 2018.
In Pennsylvania, there were 1,300 fewer high school players in 2017 than a decade earlier—and the number has dropped drastically over the past several decades.
In 1976, more than 76,000 students statewide played football. A little over 40 years later, there were 25,605.
There are other factors at work aside from concussion concerns, including competition from other sports, soccer’s growing popularity and teens’ infatuation with technology. But it’s impossible to dispute the expanding body of evidence linking football head injuries to later conditions like dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. “Certainly, the prevalence of CTE in ex-NFL players—some of whom took their own lives—the reports from science and the Will Smith movie (“Concussion”) have built awareness,” says Archbishop Carroll coach Kyle Detweiler. “The concussions suffered by players and the seriousness of brain injuries have strengthened [schools’] protocols.”
A 2018 study co-authored by Philadelphia pediatrician Chris Feudtner showed that football participation rates have dropped continually since 2010, when the concussion phenomenon exploded. “The decline is associated with media attention focused on concussions or brain injuries among football players,” Feudtner told Reuters.
Locally and throughout the country, coaches have taken considerable steps to limit head trauma. Better equipment, fewer “live” drills at practice, different tackling techniques, stricter protocols for those who sustain head injuries—it’s all helping.
Related Article: Malvern’s Defend Your Head Aims to Make Football Safe
Mike Murphy has directed the football program at the Haverford School for 14 seasons, and he’s seen the game change dramatically. “I feel confident that it’s a ton safer than when I was playing,” he says.
There are many reasons why that’s true. One of those is in Murphy’s hands and looks like a gold wok. Sold by the Chester Springs-based company Defend Your Head, it’s a ProTech product designed to reduce the force generated by hits during practices and games. Dome-shaped and about a half-inch thick, it attaches to the helmet with a collection of hooks. It “absorbs the energy” generated by blows and “distributes it over the whole product, not just one spot,” according to John Loughery, a former Penn Charter and Boston College QB who’s now part of the Defend Your Head management team. While eliminating concussions is impossible, you can drastically reduce the sort of sub-concussive impacts that lead to traumas with long-term effects. “We have a product that really does what we say it does,” says Loughery.
The ProTech shell costs $160 and is designed to cover any type of helmet. Several local schools have adopted it. But cost could be an issue for some schools. When it comes to the helmets themselves, the highest-rated one on the market, the Vicis ZERO1, is $950. A top-of-the-line Schutt or Riddell helmet can cost $500.
Schools and coaches are doing more than just upgrading equipment. In early August, before the PIAA-mandated “heat acclimatization” practices commence, students take mandatory tests to establish cognitive baselines that will provide the foundations for care should they suffer concussions. Things have changed during training camp, too. In addition to understanding the value of hydration and rest, coaches now know that it’s dead wrong to put players through punishing two- and three-a-day practices with copious contact and “old-school” drills. One is bull-in-the-ring, where one player stands in a circle and must identify and hit a teammate whose name/number is called by a coach. For another, dubbed Oklahoma, an offensive and a defensive lineman square off in a narrow chute to establish control of the line of scrimmage while a back tries to make his way through. And lest former players decry the “softening” of the sport, they should realize that the NFL banned such training exercises in May.
Practices are far different than they were even a decade ago. Much of the work done is at “thud” tempo, which means there can be an initial collision, but players aren’t permitted to bring ball carriers to the ground or sustain hits. High school teams have company. Three years ago, the Ivy League announced it wouldn’t allow tackling to the ground during practice. “We structure how we approach contact,” says Detweiler. “Football is a collision sport, but we have to be careful how much hitting we do and how we approach practice so it’s as safe as possible. We go live a little during camp, but we won’t go to the ground during regular-season practices.”
Murphy estimates that his team may have about 10 minutes a week of live plays, and that’s usually to replicate goal-line situations. Garnet Valley High School coach Mike Ricci says his team engages in no live work at all during the season. “We haven’t taken guys to the ground for several years,” says Ricci, who has directed the Jaguars since 1986. “I don’t think it’s necessary.”
At Radnor High School, head coach Tom Ryan has about 10 plays of live action during practice each week, and he notes the fine line between preparing his team for Friday night and losing players to injury. Cardinal O’Hara High School’s BJ Hogan puts his players through no live work once the season starts. “There’s no need in practice for a player to clock a ball carrier and then roll up into a defensive lineman and lose him to injury,” the coach says.
No one interviewed has noticed a drop in the quality of play due to less hitting during training. All feel that those who want to tackle in games will still complete the job when it matters, though many still recognize the importance of the game’s physical aspect. “Sometimes, players get a bit complacent when they’re not getting after each other,” says Murphy. “I’m all for finding ways to make the game safer. But at some point, you have to realize that this is football.”
There is no high-school-affiliated rugby program in the country older than the one at Conestoga High School. It was established in 1971 and includes teams for boys, girls and juniors. So when the school’s football coaches wanted to learn the basics of rugby’s popular “Hawk” tackling technique, they were able to access a resource few other schools could: head boys coach Alex Johnson, who’s been part of the rugby staff for nearly 15 years. “He showed the coaches and players how to wrap and roll, rather than tackle with direct impact,” says Kevin Pechin, Conestoga High School’s athletic director, who’s been teaching and coaching there for more than 25 years.
Right now, one of the biggest changes to football is how coaches teach tackling. The old days of “low man wins” are over. It’s almost all rugby-style tackling, and we have Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to thank for that. While at the University of Southern California, he began teaching what he calls “Trojan” tackling, after the school’s nickname. It involves tracking the ball carrier, attacking his inside hip with the head across his body, wrapping the arms around the runner’s thighs and bringing him down by rolling to the ground. In those instances when stopping forward motion is important, players are taught to wrap their arms and “drive for five” steps to force a whistle.
“The evolution of the game, with the improvements and advancements in helmets and equipment, allowed guys to do things they didn’t do back in the day when they were tackling with their shoulders,” says Carroll of the headfirst big hits that prevailed earlier. “That led us down this path. In order to change it, we needed to find ways to minimize dangerous play and maximize safety to protect the future of the game.”
During the season, Carroll’s Seahawks sometimes practice without helmets to emphasize that contact with the head should be avoided. Most NFL coaches are highly secretive with their drills and techniques, but Carroll wanted to spread his tackling gospel, so he has produced videos that explain how to do it. He says the league has embraced the technique and that his players “are receptive” because they want to be safe. And it’s not like the Seahawks have suffered because of the change in style—they’re consistently one of the top defenses in the NFL. “We’ve played some really good defense and special teams around here for a while,” he says.
But football remains a collision sport—and there’s no way to protect the head completely. “You have a receiver running a route, and a safety is coming at him at 12 to 15 miles per hour. There’s just a split second to react,” Murphy says. “It’s tough to worry about head placement in that moment.”
Still, local coaches report that concussions are down. When a player suffers a blow to the head during a practice or game, those directing the team have no say in what happens next. Trainers and doctors are completely in charge. “If someone tells me he has a headache, I call the trainer right away,” says Cardinal O’Hara’s Hogan. “The trainer calls the doctor, and they go from there.”
And coaches no longer apply pressure to medical staff in the hopes of getting players to return earlier. “When the doctor signs off on it, the kid can play,” Hogan says. At Carroll, Detweiler employs a return-to-play model that mandates players must clear a series of cognitive hurdles before getting back on the field. Haverford School head athletic trainer Bill Wardle describes the return-to-play process as the biggest change he’s seen over the past 10 years. When discussing how schools handled concussions 20 years ago, he uses the word “laughable.”
These days, the protocol is dead serious. Before they can get back on the field, players who suffer concussions must now show they can handle a continuum
of light aerobic activity to light contact to full contact to game-ready status. The results have been fewer concussions, and—in tandem with Defend Your Head equipment, a drop in practice contact and new tackling techniques—a safer game. “The only way to get safer now is to change the essence of the game,” Wardle admits. “That would mean not including tackling and hitting. We’ve done just about everything we can.”
Medical professionals are in charge of the process, but everybody plays a role, including players, parents and referees, the latter who are mandated to alert coaches if players are compromised on the field.
Ricci tells a story about his two sons. One suffered a concussion playing lacrosse, the other on the wrestling mat. Both assumed they’d be ready to return after just a few days. “There was no way the doctor was letting them go back until they’d recovered,” says Ricci. “We have people in place now protecting kids.”
It didn’t take long for Mike Muscella to load his team onto the bus for its final 2018 road game. “There were only 15 kids,” says Valley Forge Military Academy’s coach. “They were looking at me like, ‘Coach? Really?’”
The Trojans finished the season with a 2-6 record, and one of those “triumphs” was a 2-0 forfeit victory over Delco Christian, which had suspended its program. VFMA lost its final five games by a combined score of 200-32 and is now joining Delco Christian in the eight-man gridiron world this year. Muscella thinks of VFMA alums Larry Fitzgerald, Chris Doleman and Julian Peterson—all of who went to the NFL—and wonders what they might think about the switch. But the school has no choice. “This is what we have to do,” he says. “I would love to line up with Larry Fitzgerald and Julian Peterson on the field, but we can’t.”
Like Delco Christian, Valley Forge is a victim of dwindling numbers. Fewer young kids are playing the sport, legislators are trying to prevent children under 12 from participating in tackle football, and parents are choosing soccer and other pursuits for their offspring. Football is far from dead, but the numbers are falling, and schools and their coaches are trying to find ways to keep it thriving.
Calling himself an “old-school guy,” Muscella embraces everything football has to offer. Yet he acknowledges the need for change. “I understand why we’re doing it,” he says.
So VFMA will play with eight this year and wait for others to join them in the pursuit. “It’s going to be fun,” says Muscella. “Fun and fast.”
And probably safer.