Jun 12, 2014
Safety of football players has been in the media spotlight for years, and on Thursday, Wake County Schools took a step forward in football safety, awareness and preparation.
The Wake County Public School System became the first district in the state of North Carolina to adopt the USA Football Heads Up program, an initiative supported by the NFL that aims to make the game of football better and safer.
Middle school and high school football coaches and athletic trainers from across Wake County gathered at N.C. State University's Wendell H. Murphy Center for a day-long training session from USA Football. After taking the course, then taking a test, each attendee will become a certified Player Safety Coach.
"The most important thing is we're all about student-athletes and players being safe," said E.Z. Smith, former Concord High School football coach and USA Football Master Trainer who led Thursday's training session. "What we're hoping is the information we disseminate can be emulated by the other sports."
The Heads Up program consists of six components – education and certification, concussion recognition and response, equipment fitting, heads-up tackling, player safety coach, and heat preparedness and hydration.
"Every sport has concussion awareness and head and hydration issues," Smith said.
Coaches and athletic trainers sat through a classroom portion of the training session in which they were taught signs and symptoms of concussions, how to handle a suspected concussion, and the correct protocols for returning an athlete to play. They were also shown the correct way to measure for and fit helmets and shoulder pads.
"Anything we're going to do to improve the game, to make the game better for our kids, has to be about keeping them safer on the playing field and at practice on a daily basis," Wake County Schools Senior Director of Athletics Deran Coe said. "I think just bringing a level a continuity to what we do from the middle schools to the high schools helps the athletic trainers, the head coaches, and all the staff to understand what it means to follow the Heads Up program."
Heads-up tackling is a five-step series of drills taught by USA Football that encourages players to keep their heads up while they hit another player.
USA Football tells coaches to pay attention to their coaching terms when teaching tackling. For example, terms like "lay a hit on him," "stick your face in there," or "ear hole him," are discouraged because they can lead to improper form, which can lead to injury.
Coaches were also taught to avoid using terms like "bite the ball" and "wrap" when teaching tackling techniques because those actions can encourage players to drop their heads. A lowered head can lead to head and neck injuries.
"We have a responsibility to our players and to our parents to make sure that our players are safe," said Wakefield High School football coach Rod Sink. "I think that everyone showing up here shows how committed we are to that, to make sure we have safe players and they don't have injuries on the field come this fall, or next fall, that will affect them for the rest of their lives."
After learning about the tackling techniques taught by USA Football, coaches went out on the practice fields at N.C. State and participated in the drills themselves. The hands-on training was beneficial to both the coaches and the athletic trainers.
"The information that we're going to take away from this Heads Up program is basically going to be dispersed among the rest of our football staff and athletic training staff back at our respective schools, and basically it will be dispersed among our players and parents," said Miles Kliewer, head athletic trainer at Apex High School.
Other school systems like Charlotte-Meckleburg, Forsyth County and Pitt County are expected to also adopt the Heads Up program this summer, but the fact that Wake County was the first in the state is a big deal to the district. Coe said it about Wake County be proactive instead of reactive.
"We want to make the game safer rather than waiting until a catastrophic injury occurs, or that we have to deal with something tragic for one of our student-athletes," he said.
The football coaches take pride in being the first in the state too.
"It really says how much we really care about our players and athletes who participate in our program, that we're looking to the future for them, that we're not just worried about their time here, but for the rest of their lives," said Sink.
And when football teams suit up and take the field for official practice in August, Coe hopes the more than 4,000 Wake County football players are just a little bit safer.
"This will bring some more knowledge about proper equipment fitting, about how to identify concussions, how to deal with those concussions when they occur, but also just how to prevent them through the proper tackling techniques, and through your day-to-day work on the practice field," Coe said.
High school football season officially begins on Aug. 1 in North Carolina.
Follow Nick Stevens on Twitter @NickStevensHSOT
This story is closed for comments.