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High schools adopting Heads Up Football program

Gabe Infante preached over the summer to youth football coaches about Heads Up Football, a program aimed at reducing helmet hits and raising concussion awareness. He’s now formally putting that into practice with the high school team he coaches.

“I’ve talked to a lot of youth coaches who believe it’s important for the key high schools in their areas to endorse the program. That would obviously add some credibility to them running it with their youth programs,” says Infante, head coach at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia.

On Monday, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) will announce its endorsement of Heads Up, orchestrated by USA Football, a national organization that was endowed in 2002 by the NFL and the NFL Players Association.

Last year, Heads Up started with pilot programs in three youth leagues in Virginia, Indiana and California. The program included designated safety coach for each league, certification for all coaches via an online course and safety clinics that included parents. At its core, Heads Up is based on a style of tackling that puts emphasis on striking a blow with the shoulders and not the head.

With a national rollout this year, USA Football says about 2,800 youth leagues representing 600,000 players have adopted Heads Up.

Now, high schools will begin their own pilot stage.

In early June in Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools announced it is bringing Heads Up to its 25 high school teams with about 3,000 players. On Monday, USA Football and the national high school federation will announce seven more high schools in seven other states will have pilot programs this season.

“We’re supporting it and believe it’s a step in the right direction in trying to get everybody that’s involved in the game of football following the same fundamentals for teach tackling and trying to build a base that will make the game be able to endure and continue well into our future,” says Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director and a member of the board of USA Football.

NFHS, which like USA Football is based in Indianapolis, is the national leadership organization for more than 19,000 high schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

“We don’t have the authority to mandate, but we certainly can use our influence and create awareness, and that’s what we’re attempting to do,” says Gardner.

Scott Hallenbeck, executive director of USA Football, says his group will follow a plan similar to what it did with youth football when it began with pilot programs in 2012.

“We would hope and expect to roll it out nationally (for high schools) next year. So we’re excited about the level of enthusiasm from the high school coaches and their willingness to participate,” says Hallenbeck.

“The fact is if a parent has a 10-year-old kid who is in youth football and they came up through a program that has Heads Up Football … and they go to a high school program that now has the same tackling technique, the same terminology, that is truly changing the culture of football for the better.”

At St. Joseph’s, Infante was among the coaches who traveled to Indianapolis in March to attend training sessions to become “master trainers” in Heads Up. His task this summer was to conduct clinics for player safety coaches from youth leagues.

“I ran a lot of clinics this summer, not just in (the Philadelphia area),” says Infante. “I was up in Boston. I was up in New York. And the common question was, ‘When are the high schools going to adopt this?’ ” says Infante.

Through his involvement with USA Football, Infante had been exposed to the precepts of Heads Up before the youth pilots began in 2012. Infante says he used the basics of Heads Up last season for his St. Joseph’s team.

“The main focus from a lot of the (youth) coaches was, ‘We know it’s safer. Tell us how it’s better,’ ” says Infante.

He notes that his team went 10-1 last season.

“We gave up less than 750 yards of rushing the entire year. … I say a lot of that has to do with the way that we run to the football and we tackle,” says Infante.

He says his team had nine concussions last season compared to 22 the season before that.

“(Heads Up) has been very, very effective for us,” he says.

For youth teams, USA Football charges $5 per coach for certification. All coaches must be certified. Hallenbeck says the charge will be $25 per coach for high schools.

In addition to St. Joseph’s Prep and the 25 schools in Virginia’s Fairfax County, other schools with pilot programs include Sam Barlow High School, Greshman, Ore.; Christopher Columbus High School, Miami, Fla.; Landon School, Bethesda, Md.; Salem High School, Salem, N.J.; Cedar Shoals High School, Athens, Ga., and Culver Academy, Culver, Ind.

“There’s still a lot of learn,” says Hallenbeck. “But we would open it up (next season) and invite as many high schools that want to embrace it … based on the things we learn from this year’s pilot.”

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