The first game of the NFL season — the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game — is usually nothing more than a celebration of football’s return to television and the promise of fall Sundays on the horizon.
But this year’s contest, between the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 2, also marked the debut of a new rule outlawing the lowering of the head to initiate contact. Such infractions are now penalized by 15 yards, an automatic first down for the opponent and the possible ejection of the offending player.
The outrage to the application of the new rule came in hot and fast, as is customary these days.
Such rules changes will receive no shortage of scrutiny as they evolve in front of a national audience. What they won’t do is change how local high coaches are preparing their teams for the 2018 season.
High school football in most states, Missouri and Kansas included, is governed by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The NFHS adopted its own targeting rule in 2014, outlawing “initiating contact with the helmet,” and “taking aim and initiating contact with an opponent above the shoulders.”
Blindside blocks — blocking an opponent who isn’t looking — were outlawed by the NFHS before last season. Violation of either rule in a high school game is punishable by a 15-yard penalty.
In this way, the sport at its lower level has been pioneering to some extent what the NFL is doing today as we learn more about concussions, their effects on the brain and the disease known as CTE.
“Rules changes at the youth, high school and college level are now in the NFL,” said Jason West, communications director for the Missouri State High Schools Activities Association (MSHSAA). “If there’s any trickle-down effect, it’s going to be more parents, players and coaches seeing it on Sunday, and that will now help to substantiate what they’re being told about Friday nights. As far as a trickle-down effect, when they see it on Sunday, it’ll carry over to Friday nights.”
Most area high school coaches played the game in an era when those hits were legal. It wasn’t all that long ago when those hits were widely celebrated and packaged into highlight reels.
For the most part, those days are now gone.
“I do know the last several years, we’ve been much more cognizant of safety than we ever have,” Blue Springs High coach Kelly Donohoe said. “I don’t know about new NFL rule, just because there are too many issues. It’s so subjective.
“But at the high school level, we continue to preach heads-up (tackling). I haven’t noticed a lot of bad hits, and I think it’s because we’re doing better job of teaching and preaching, and the kids being more aware. If you had to relive ‘70s and ‘80s, football is the safest it’s been at our level, and I wish we could convince parents of that.”
Youth football enrollment numbers are declining nationwide as research into concussions and their short- and long-term effects on the human brain has become more mainstream. Organizations such as USA Football have implemented programs to teach proper tackling technique to young players and their coaches alike.
Increasingly, high school coaches are stewards of the game they love.
“With the research and knowledge we have, we need to protect players and penalize those players using the helmet as a weapon,” Center coach Bryan DeLong said. “I think if you give kid a $300 helmet and just tell them to strap it up, it gives them a false sense of security. We want to teach kids to use their shoulder pads and to tackle and wrap up.”
Player and athlete safety extends beyond revamped tackling techniques. The Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) has instituted new heat acclimatization rules that allow only one practice per day in the first five days of practice for all fall sports.
“Research tells us the second workout you do in a day puts you at more risk for injury and at a place where you can’t develop skills anyway,” KSHSAA assistant executive director Jeremy Holaday said. “Your body has shut down and is trying to recover from the first workout, and you’re trying to start it back up again. There’s a place for that eventually, just not in the first five days.”
The rule change limiting outdoor practices to one per day isn’t affecting Bishop Miege’s preseason preparations all that much, according to coach Jon Holmes.
“I’m not seeing it as a huge change. There’s so much we’re allowed to do in the summer,” he said. “We’re going to get conditioned and (get plays) installed. I’m not too worried.”
Ultimately, football is a sport predicated on collisions, and the risks inherent in tackling an opponent to the ground can’t be entirely eliminated. Those governing the sport at all levels say they’re just trying to be smarter about it.
“There’s a lot of eyes on safety, not just on scientific side, but a lot of people — parents, coaches and lovers of the game — are watching to make sure the game is going to be around for as long as it can be,” West said. “And the biggest part is making sure it’s as safe as it can be.”
“I think everybody is making a great effort,” Donohoe said. “It’s such an important game in our country, and I worry about good kids stepping away from it. I’ll never dismiss that there’s a risk, but millions have played this game and it’s meant a lot to them.”
DeLong, the Center coach, knows how hard it is to teach new tackling techniques, and he respects how hard it is to properly officiate those rules.
The result of a game in the near future might hinge on a targeting penalty.
“High school kids don’t have control athletically like NFL players do,” he said. “It’s a tough thing to (call). As coaches, were competitive. It’ll be tough to lose on a call like that, but I don’t disagree. We need to protect kids and the game. Football has to change, and we need keep it safe and America’s pastime.”
And change has been a constant in football since its inception. The game nearly went extinct in the early 1900s before President Theodore Roosevelt helped changes that included legalizing the forward pass.
Then came the introduction of helmets, followed by mandatory facemasks.
Clothesline tackles and head slaps, once considered routine, are long gone. Blindside blocks and headhunting are on the watch list today. They’ll soon be memories, too.
“We love to see hits and tough, hard-nosed football,” DeLong said. “We still have a great game. The team concept, togetherness, hard work ... we can get those done if we didn’t have pads on at all.
“I think that’s the most important thing: adapting, making it better, protecting young men. That’s what we’re here for.”