B1G continues effort to limit head injuries

The Big Ten continues to take a proactive approach toward the most important safety issue in all of sports.

A year after joining forces with the Ivy League for an unprecedented research initiative on concussions and other head injuries in sports, the Big Ten today is announcing a partnership with USA Football to address and advance player safety at the youth and high school levels. The Big Ten has put its support behind USA Football's "Heads up Football" program, which provides players, coaches and parents with resources and techniques designed to "take the head out of the game."

Big Ten coaches will appear in public-service announcements during the 2013 season, encouraging participation in the "Heads Up Football" program, which already includes nearly 2,800 youth and high school teams. The PSAs will air during television broadcasts of Big Ten games, on stadium video monitors and on websites for the Big Ten, USA Football and the Big Ten's member institutions.

USA Football officials met this winter with the Big Ten coaches, who unanimously signed off on the partnership.

"Football is not a concussion problem," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "Bad technique playing the game of football is a concussion problem waiting to happen. Playing any contact sports without proper technique and not being coached properly is why those things happen. Sometimes they happen randomly and outside of your control, but more times than not, it's not reinforcing the proper habits and technique.

"As USA Football came in and presented to us where they see the organization going of really being the educational piece of our great game, it was from our perspective as coaches an easy decision to support them."

Fitzgerald serves on USA Football's tackle advisory committee and has an 8-year-old son, Jack, who plays for a team certified in the "Heads Up Football" program.

The program includes:

  • Tackling techniques approved by medical experts that teach players to keep their heads up and away from the point of contact

  • Certification for both youth and high school coaches, who learn and are tested on concussion recognition and response procedures from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. Coaches, players and parents learn the protocols at the beginning of each season

  • A player safety coach for each participating program who is trained by USA football to implement safety procedures. The coach also leads safety clinics for players, coaches and parents.

  • Education for players, coaches and parents on the proper fitting for helmets and shoulder pads

"I watch it firsthand as I've gone out and watched my son practice," Fitzgerald said. "I see it in the way the coaches coach. He's loving the game, and that's what it’s all about. Hopefully, that stamp of approval, that these coaches have been USA Football-certified, will give parents great confidence that their young men are going to be taught with the best practices and the No. 1 priority to keep them healthy and safe."

Fitzgerald has seen an improvement in tackling techniques and fundamentals in the past five seasons, but the instruction and retention varies from player to player.

"Every day, you're hearing our coaches at our practices talking about, 'Heads up, eyes up, take your head to the side,'" Fitzgerald said. "That's not only when you're talking about tackling, but it's the same thing in blocking and taking on tackling. The initiative here is all about education, about giving the technique, the fundamentals and the resources to the grade-school coaches, who are the lifeblood of our sport, as [players] move forward from grade school to high school, high school to college, college to Sunday."

The Big Ten last month hosted a head injury summit with the Ivy League to narrow down the strategies of the concussion/head injury study. Although the research component is key, the on-field education might be even more important as players move up through the game.

"It is extremely important to promote the proper instruction of tackling at all levels to ensure the well-being of young athletes as well as our student-athletes," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in a prepared statement. "Nothing is more important than their health. 'Heads Up Football' reflects the innovation that is woven into football’s heritage by changing for the better how our game is played and taught."