AUGUST 27, 2016 -- BY JIM NEFF
THE NEFF ZONE
I played high school football. I coached high school football. I was the “Voice of the Cadillac Vikings” on radio for many years. I've been a spectator since I was a kindergartener (in 1953) attending Flint Northern games with my father. I love high school football.
All that said, I fear for the game. With all the concerns about player safety front and center in the news, my fear is that at some juncture there will be a point of diminishing returns and high schools will have to decide if sponsoring football makes sense. I have speculated for many years that whether or not to have football may come down to a simple insurance issue. One landmark case going against a school district could make football (and some other sports) just too risky and expensive to justify.
For me, though, the encouraging news is that developments regarding player safety are being implemented (as we speak). A study published this week by the Journal of Neurosurgery noted that head injuries are are about three times more likely to occur during practices than during games: “Tackling drills were observed to have a greater proportion of impacts than games...tackling or blocking drills (account) for only 22 percent of overall practice times, but these drills were responsible for 86 percent of all practice impacts.” The study goes on to identify the most common football drills and suggests which drills to eliminate or modify to lessen the chance of injuries. (http://thejns.org/doi/full/10.3171/2016.5.PEDS1696)
This philosophy is already being used by high schools. In New Jersey, for example, some high schools are replacing full contact scrimmages with a technique called THUD. “The scrimmage will be run at full speed in full pads, but the ball carriers will not be brought to the ground instead being stopped by being wrapped up or using thud. Players will stay on their feet with contact above the waist and a quick whistle ending the play. We don’t see this as changing the integrity (of the game). It’s not being soft, it’s being safe.”
This same program is being used by NFL teams, The University of Southern California, and (beginning this season) all the teams in the Ivy League. It's called “Practice Like the Pros,” so if it's good for the upper echelons of the sport it should merit consideration for high schools and lower age groups.
When I look at the so-called “new” tackling and blocking techniques being touted, I can't help but get a sense of deja vu. Back in the dark ages at Flint St. Michael high school, we were taught to use our shoulders to tackle and block and to slide our heads to the side. Paramount was keeping our head out of the way. This is the “brand new” technique now espoused by USA Football at https://usafootball.com/health-safety/how-to-tackle.
Which brings me to Mott Football. Let me preface this by saying that in the 1950s and 1960s there was no place better in which to be a kid than Flint, Michigan. The C.S. Mott Foundation sponsored every type of recreational opportunity you could imagine. As a kid, all you had to do was show up and play. No fees, no fuss.
Now, I'm not going to tell you Mott Football was/is better than what we offer today for 7th and 8th graders, but it is a different type of program. Contained therein might be a germ of an idea or a useful concept.
Back then, there was no formal football until you were in the 7th grade. At that point you could participate in Mott Football. You went to the public high school nearest to your home. For our neighborhood that was Flint Northern. Once there you were divided by size (weight), asked what position you wanted to play, and teams were formed.
Then for three (or four) Saturday mornings your squad practiced from 8:00-9:30 am. No pads or helmets were used. The coaches for the teams were the Northern Varsity and JV players. They taught you basics like stance, form blocking and tackling, how to run a few of Northern's offensive plays, and where to line up in Northern's defense.
On the last day of Mott Football, you got to put on pads and helmets and your team scrimmaged another team in the same weight class. It was all very controlled, but it gave us a taste of what high school football was all about. Based on this, some decided to go on and play high school football and others decided it was not their sport.
For us, it was cool to go to the Northern games and watch our “coaches” in action. For those Northern players, it gave them a chance to experience being a coach. For the Northern high school coaches, it was a way to scout out the future talent coming to their school. Everyone came out a winner.
This type of scenario might not be workable today, but then again the current system is going to change whether we like it or not. The reality is that only about 2.4 percent of high school football players will ever play NCAA I college ball and it's less than that for the lower NCAA divisions. If you check the record books, you'll see that Flint cranked out a pretty impressive number of players who went on to play college and pro football. They all started with Mott. (http://www.scholarshipstats.com/varsityodds.html)
I went on to play (and coach) at Flint St. Mike's. I often tell people that I played two ways on my high school football team – seldom and poorly. But like me, regardless of playing time, for the vast majority of high school players the top honor they will ever achieve is wearing the varsity football uniform for their school. For me, going through Mott established a love for the game. After all is said and done that's the point, isn't it?
Growing up in Flint in the 50s and 60s meant going to the annual Thanksgiving Day football game between Flint Northern and Flint Central at Atwood Stadium. Before there were playoffs, this classic matchup was a Flint tradition.