Virtual reality and robotic tackling dummies -- how Dartmouth is shaping the future of football

Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens hopes his vision for football, including using this virtual reality headset, will trickle up to coaches like Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban and down to youth leagues everywhere. Sarah Rice for ESPN

On the outskirts of campus, in a redbrick stadium draped in ivy, a couple dozen high school football players try to glimpse the future.

It's the heart of summer, which means it's football camp season, which means this crop of high schoolers is just one of many crops looking to dazzle collegiate suitors today. But this field -- Memorial Field, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire -- is not just any field.

"All right!" hollers Don Dobes, Dartmouth's gravel-voiced defensive coordinator. "Go on, feel it," he urges these teenage linebackers who are just. not. moving. fast. enough in the soupy July heat. His directive drips with bemusement, like the high schoolers might actually be afraid of the 5-foot-something black vinyl tackling dummy lined up across from them, which looks like the world's biggest Weeble and wobbles like one too. It's a dummy like any other dummy except, oh right, this one is robotic. It's fast (18 mph) and heavy (190 pounds) and takes the hits Dartmouth football players used to dish out on their teammates until head coach Buddy Teevens eliminated live tackling in practice.

Thirty yards away, Callie Brownson, the team's recently crowned recruiting coordinator, brandishes what looks like a radar gun but is really the remote control that powers this peculiar enterprise. She hits go, and the robotic tackling dummy takes off sprinting. With her not-radar-gun, wraparound sunglasses, close-cropped hair and arms akimbo, she looks like a no-nonsense sheriff. Brownson is a coach like any other coach except, oh yeah, she is the first woman with a full-time coaching gig in Division I college football. She's on the fast track (Teevens calls her the best entry-level coach he's ever hired), and she's a heavy hitter (her résumé boasts internships with the Jets, Falcons and Bills), and she never truly saw a place for herself on a college football sideline until Teevens helped carve a space for her here.

And this is a football team like any other football team except, oh boy, Teevens is out to reimagine the way the game is practiced and played and coached. Trim and angular, Teevens has a dusting of a Boston accent, and when he talks, when he really gets going, laying out his mission -- what he hopes reaches up to the Nick Sabans and Dabo Swinneys and reaches down to all those youth and high school coaches out there -- hiswordsruntogetherlikethis.

"People need to open their minds," he says. "This isn't football? Well, football's not, and will not be, what it used to be."

What football might be -- what the future of this game might look like one day soon; what it might have to look like -- could be shaped here, in this tiny hamlet, at this Ivy League institution, with this non-tackling, woman-hiring, next-big-idea-having troupe of insurgents.

Just about eight years ago, in the spring of 2011, Buddy Teevens walked into his team meeting room and announced, without so much as poll-testing it with his staff, that Dartmouth players would no longer tackle one another in practice.

One assistant coach thought Teevens was kidding. Another seemed unable to process what he had done in life to deserve such a fate. "God, this is idiotic," the assistant told Teevens. "We're all going to get fired."

Teevens weathered his staff's righteous outrage:

How will these guys know how to tackle safely!? Answer: He wasn't abandoning practicing the fundamentals. He just didn't want players practicing those fundamentals on one another.

How will these guys know how to tackle well come game time!? Truth: That much was a little more wait-and-see.

How will, how will, how will!?

Their protests, however, weren't as loud as the clash of helmets from the collision that took place a few months before this meeting, in the middle of a blitz drill. One young running back vs. one prized linebacker. One play, two concussions.

Teevens knew he couldn't make football risk-free. But he also knew the most pernicious damage wasn't always suffered via one devastating in-game blow but from repeated knocks, the onslaught of subconcussive hits suffered again and again in practice. He ran the rough math in his head. If he did away with player-on-player tackling in practice, if there were 1,000, 2,000 or 8,000 fewer hits over the course of a career, wouldn't that help? Wasn't that a start?

Nearly a decade later, Teevens laughs at the coach he was, cowed by what he had set in motion. ("Well, s---," he remembers thinking before the first game that season. "Hope this works.") Settling back into a black wooden chair in his office, he concedes he knew how most folks felt about him, and his plan. "I was the village idiot," he says.

He didn't have to do all this. But he was scared for the sport then, like he's scared for it now. He's alarmed enough that he repeats himself again and again, his worry spilling out like a prayer.

Don't live under a rock. Look at the science. Have you seen the science? CTE is real. Concussion science is real. Have you seen the science? Do you live under a rock?

"Either we change the way we coach the game," he says, "or we're not gonna have a game to coach."

Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the organization he co-founded to research CTE and concussions, wishes more coaches saw Teevens' urgency. Nowinski wants to transition all youth to flag football until high school because minimizing exposure to subconcussive hits is the "No. 1 thing we can do to help football players." And because he thinks Teevens is exactly right: If coaches don't change the game, the game will change on them.

The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that boys' participation in 11-player football fell 6.5 percent from 2007 to 2017, dropping from 1.11 million to 1.04 million -- even while the total population of boys participating in sports overall rose 4.4 percent. That still leaves more than 1 million high school football players in the United States. Football isn't dead in this country. It isn't even on life support. But the warning signs are there, and Nowinski thinks there's a way forward. "Buddy Teevens is showing that you can restrict tackling to an extreme place and succeed on the field," he says.

Indeed, in Year 1 post-tackling, Teevens says, the team's overall injury rate fell 80 percent. By Year 2, the concussion rate had plummeted 58 percent. And the Big Green's football? It was just fine. Their missed tackles were cut in half, and since 2014, Dartmouth has won 76 percent of its games -- the Ivy League's best clip and proof that the elimination of tackling in practice did not metastasize into endemic losing.

That, in the end, won Teevens' guys over. Five or six years passed, with no tackling and plenty of winning, before his players and staff truly bought in. Even now, freshmen walk onto Memorial Field desperate to impress their new coaches, so they'll do what impressed their old coaches. They'll wallop a teammate.

How many times did the Dartmouth staff rail against Nigel Alexander? The senior linebacker lost count.

"Oh, man," he says, conjuring up his troublemaking days. "Three? Four, five, six?"

He's standing in the end zone of Memorial Field, eyeing a new generation of young players. Some of these high schoolers might wind up at Dartmouth. They might get tossed from practice because they're still learning to rewire their football muscle memory. Don't tackle, don't tackle, don't tackle.

They'll come around. Jalen Mackie moved all the way from Miami to play linebacker in Hanover. He was a freshman last year when he collided with a teammate in practice.

"Hey, man," another teammate jumped in. "We don't do that around here."

In spring 2013, Teevens stood in his office and gazed out the window, with a researcher friend from Dartmouth's engineering school by his side. The players already hadn't been tackling one another for a few seasons by that point, but the team was still perfecting a practice regimen without live tackling. The staff installed 10-minute tackling circuits, the players hunting down pop-up dummies and half-moon dummies. They chased after and tackled a device that looked like a snowman as coaches pulled it on a rope, doing their best to make that snowman simulate an opponent on the move.

"Wouldn't it be neat," Teevens began, "if we could make one of those move?" He waved to a tackling dummy on the field below.

"You know, Buddy," said John Currier, the researcher friend, "I think we can."

Currier convened a team of engineering students, including one of Teevens' football players, to fashion the prototype that eventually became the Mobile Virtual Player. (Today, Teevens is chairman of the MVP company board.) It was janky at first, parts falling off here, loosening up over there, but was refined into what is now one of the beloved centerpieces of Dartmouth practices. (For others too. In college: Texas and Notre Dame, to name two. In the pros: the Cowboys and Steelers, among others. The NFL even spotlighted the MVP in a 2017 Super Bowl ad, a "future of football" tagline flashing on screen after a shot of the motorized dummy hurtling across Memorial Field.) It really does look like any other old tackling dummy -- until a coach wields that radar-gun-looking remote and presses go. Then it's a roving target for defensive players to fire their bodies at, and the closest approximation yet of tackling an on-the-go player. With less potential for head-to-head trauma.

"When I got up here, I was like, 'Oooh, that's going to be weird,'" Nigel Alexander says. "But it's just like tackling a person, except you're not taking people's knees out just for fun."

Teevens still looks out his office window and daydreams. Maybe an MVP that has arms, to better simulate an oncoming pass rush. Maybe MVPs that work in concert with one another for seven-on-seven drills. And he listens to others who look out their own windows too, which means ideas find him as much as he finds them.

In the Dartmouth lounge area, there's a headset attached to a laptop, a mini virtual reality station where Jared Gerbino, one of the team's top quarterbacks, can settle into a black leather easy chair, slip on a pair of goggles and step back onto the practice field with STRIVR. He can turn 360 degrees and there's his offensive line, his quarterbacks coach, the water station he visits during breaks. He can virtually take the reps he missed in practice, the ones divvied up among the other quarterbacks.

On a Dartmouth locker room wall hangs a printout of 28 players' practice readings -- total distance traveled, top speed reached -- data gleaned from Catapult, GPS technology that tracks their every move on the field. And on the sideline, on Fridays and Saturdays in the fall, about 35 Dartmouth players will slip on Vicis helmets designed to absorb and disperse energy. Teevens did some investigating and wanted to give his players the option to try this more malleable headgear. Hit it and you hear more thud, less crack, he says.

Teevens has explored all manner of possibilities: He's looked into soft, padded headgear for seven-on-seven drills, ProTech helmet covers to lessen the impact of hits, and neck strengthening to guard against whiplash. He's interested in how auditory responses to music could help identify concussions, how saliva could help identify concussions. He's waiting to see if bloodwork might help identify concussions one day soon.

He is forever tinkering around the edges. About two seasons ago, he decided his offensive and defensive lines wouldn't line up yards apart in drills but "at the fit" -- close together and at a dead stop -- to do away with bull rushes and collisions. He's still noodling with ideas on how to reform kickoffs.

If that makes him college football's nutty professor, well, that's fine. It's not as though he's the only college coach out there dabbling. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney gushes about STRIVR. Alabama's Nick Saban pores over Catapult data. But Teevens might be the only one willing to try this much.

He laughs, then mimics an imaginary coach ridiculing his ways. "Oh boy," he says in mock contempt. "There goes Teevens again."

There Teevens went again when he met Callie Brownson.

Brownson had been recruited in spring 2018 to be a coach for the first women's installment of the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Teevens helps coach the camp every year, and this time, Brownson caught his eye: the way she cataloged each minute of each drill in her practice plans; how she interacted with the players, no matter their skill; how much her effort and curiosity screamed that she wanted to be part of this world. A week after the camp ended, Teevens offered her a two-week internship with the Dartmouth football team.

Brownson's history is the history of most young people who fall in love with the game. Her father was a Miami Hurricanes fan, so she became a 
Miami Hurricanes fan. She played football as a 75-pounder in a Pop Warner-type league. But when she asked about trying out for her high school freshman team in Virginia, she was told they'd consider her as a kicker. "No offense to kickers," she says, a smile creeping in. "But I wanted to play." As a senior, she told the coach she didn't care if he never played her but that she wanted to be on the roster that year -- and was out-and-out laughed at. She never tried out.

Brownson did find a way to stay in the game, though, first by playing free safety, wide receiver and running back for eight seasons in the Women's Football Alliance, a tackle football league, then by returning to Mount Vernon High School, her alma mater, as a position coach. But she never envisioned a path that ended with her on a college or professional football sideline.

"At that point?" she says. "Being a female with a career in football was never in the dialogue."

Yet here was Teevens, calling to flip this particular script.

Brownson bought a round-trip ticket, then spent her internship primarily with the wide receivers. By the time her two weeks were up, those receivers nudged Teevens on the field and in meeting rooms and in his office. "Hey, Coach," said Dylan Mellor, a senior at the time. "I really think we need her." Teevens really thought they needed her too, and on the day before her internship ended, he asked her to stay on the staff for good.

Before the first game last season, at home against Georgetown, Brownson stood outside the training room alone, the rest of the team congregating in the locker room. Should she go in? She should probably go in. She didn't go in. Brownson and Teevens hadn't discussed what to do here, so she steered clear. A few minutes later, as the team filtered out, Teevens found her in the tunnel on the way to the field.

"Why weren't you in there?" he asked. "I hired a coach. So be like every other coach."

Even the assistant coaches who weren't sold found their way to acceptance. More than that. They respected Brownson, and she won that respect like every other coach before her. She freaking hustled. She kept insane hours, in at 6 in the morning, out at 11 at night, but kept her good humor about sacrificing daylight by pointing to the poster of a window hanging in her dungeon of an office. She gunned it back from road games, uploading film before the rest of the staff made it to the office.

Before Brownson came along, Teevens' coaches hadn't imagined a woman working alongside them. Didn't know they could imagine it. The numbers are stark: three women coaching full time in the NFL as of this summer; two, including Brownson, at the college level. But Sam Rapoport, who spearheads the NFL Women's Careers in Football Forum, says it is slowly starting to dawn on coaches that if they consider the entire talent pool and not just the fraction of the pool that is male, they might find an edge there.

"Let's make sure we get the right person in the job," says Bills coach Sean McDermott, who brought Phoebe Schecter on as an intern in 2017 and 2018, then hosted Brownson this summer. "Why would we not want to include the other 50 percent of our population when we're talking about finding the best of the best?"

That's the part that speaks to Teevens. The logic of it all. He thinks he can make his team better by expanding the parameters of his coaching searches, so he does. He thinks he can make his team safer by narrowing the parameters of tackling in practice, so he does. So far, so promising.

So promising, in fact, that he has converted his athletic director, Harry Sheehy, into a devout believer. As the players rallied behind Brownson, as the injuries faded and the wins piled up, Sheehy, who had initially questioned whether a non-tackling system could work, looked at the sum total of Teevens' experiments.

"He's on to something," he thought to himself. "This thing will spread like wildfire."

It hasn't.

Sure, Teevens has made non-tackling evangelists out of his own people.

Don Dobes: "Another [pro-live-tackling] coach wants me as a defensive coordinator? We would have a heck of a battle on how we are going to do this."

Harry Sheehy: "Football coach was hired recently. He said, 'We hit, we hit and then we hit some more.' I'm like, 'Knucklehead.'"

For now, though, they mostly live in an echo chamber. Even the other Ivy League schools, which followed Dartmouth's lead in 2016 and imposed a conference-wide ban on regular-season tackling in practice, are willing to go only so far. This spring, Teevens proposed expanding that embargo to encompass the preseason and spring ball too. His proposal was batted down 7 to 1. (He was the 1.) Teevens proposed adopting the Alliance of American Football model for kickoffs -- that is, no kickoffs. That suggestion wasn't humored with a vote at all.

"I pretty much gave up after that one," he says, a bit hangdog. "My shaming."

And that's to say nothing of conferences beyond the Ivies.

Take a forward-thinking, innovative coach like David Shaw, at a forward-thinking, innovative program like Stanford. Shaw estimates he's scaled back tackling in practice by 40 percent since his first year as head coach in 2011. That's no small concession. But would he chip away more? All?

"I would have a tough time looking my team in the face and not practicing tackling and going against Notre Dame on national TV," he says.

"Being a female with a career in football was never in the dialogue." Callie Brownson

He's not alone. Nick Saban shares Teevens' concern for the game and says his own approach has evolved too. "When I was a player, I thought the more you did the better off you were," he says. He doesn't feel that way now, not when it comes to conditioning or strength training or even live tackling in practice. "Sometimes less is more," he says. But is he ready to adopt Teevens' methods? Not yet, he says; not until he can study and understand for himself whether it's safe and effective to do so.

Teevens can scream it and scream it again in Hanover, but he can't yell loud enough to escape a fundamental truth: He coaches in the Ivy League, where the leashes are longer and the demands fewer. Would he hold more sway if he were doing the same at a Big Ten or Big 12 or SEC program? Probably.

For the viability of the game, he wants to see his methods trickle down to high schools and youth football leagues, trickle up to the Stanfords and the Alabamas.

"I think that has to happen," he says, smiling. "But Nick Saban hasn't called me up yet."

Buddy Teevens' assistant coaches like to say that if he pops his head into their office and casually mentions, "Hey, I was up at 2 in the morning, thinking ...," that's their cue to duck and cover.

"You're just like, 'Oh boy, here we go,'" associate head coach Sammy McCorkle says. He smiles as he grumbles, then practically giggles at Teevens' latest thought experiment. He wanted to know if McCorkle thought ballroom dancing might help the players' foot movement.

Teevens is always thinking, forever gazing out that office window. He takes his wins, like when a Georgia high school goes almost full Dartmouth and stops its players from tackling one another all fall. And when he canvasses his assistant coaches, who agree, in their post-Brownson world, they'd aim to hire women on their own staffs. He feels a "little less off his rocker" then. He feels a little more inclined to withstand baffled looks when, one day, he straps pool noodles -- you know, those long foam contraptions -- onto the MVP because he wants the MVP to have arms in the future but the future isn't here yet.

That's all he's after, in the end. He's trying to make sure this game will still be a game 30 or 40 years from now.

"I've got all kinds of ideas," he says. Then he laughs. "Most of them are probably bad."