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Football: Heads Up Football making inroads in Worthington

WORTHINGTON -- It's enough to make George Halas roll over in his grave.Heads Up Football, a program introduced in 2012 through an NFL youth development initiative and USA Football, is now embraced by more than 7,000 youth and high school programs...

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The Worthington High School offensive line works on a drill at practice on Tuesday. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- It’s enough to make George Halas roll over in his grave.
Heads Up Football, a program introduced in 2012 through an NFL youth development initiative and USA Football, is now embraced by more than 7,000 youth and high school programs. And it throws everything your father taught you about tackling out the window.
Imagine Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus, or Green Bay’s Ray Nitschke, taking on a bruising NFL running back head-on, burying his head in the runner’s torso, then reaching around to pick up his legs and land him on his back.
A textbook example of tackling at its best.
Not any more.
Today’s experts -- which include some of the best coaching minds in the NFL -- are bringing rugby-type tackling into mainstream football. Proponents say it’s safer, and just as effective, to position the head up and across the body, open the hips, and generate a rising blow, keeping the tackler’s head out of the way of the collision.
The Worthington High School coaching staff is one of many who have bought into the Heads Up program, which also teaches concussion recognition and response, heat preparedness and hydration, sudden cardiac arrest procedures, proper equipment fitting and blocking. Safety is the issue that binds the program together, and with so much emphasis on safety these days -- from Pop Warner football all the way to the NFL -- it’s no wonder so many football people are buying in.
WHS head coach Gene Lais, who is leading his 2017 Trojans in a week-long pre-season camp this week, and his defensive coordinator, Scott Barber, represented the team this year in in-person Heads Up training at Loyola High School in Mankato. The rest of the WHS staff is taking part in online training.
“Other teams have success with it, then you’re willing to try it,” Lais said. “I think you have to do something to keep the game safe and keep kids playing.”
Enthusiastic coaches cite recent studies that show concussions down significantly among teams that use the Heads Up approach. But there are still skeptics, despite the fact that the Seattle Seahawks -- for years one of the best defensive teams in the NFL -- are among the organizations embracing Heads Up techniques.
The NFL has cited an independent study showing the new tackling method has reduced injuries by 76 percent and concussions by 30 percent. Critics, however, cite an investigation by the New York Times that showed no quantifiable reduction in concussions. Some of the harsher critics (one can easily imagine the legendary Chicago Bears coach Halas among them) charge that Heads Up is nothing more than a cynical marketing ploy.
Even so, there are enthusiastic supporters of Heads Up all across the country, and from virtually every level of football. One of those testimonials, from Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, can be seen on the USA Football web site.
“My son plays youth football, and the No. 1 thing we taught him is safety. I think Heads Up Football is tremendous. It’s a critical part of our game. It’s something we take very serious as college coaches, and I obviously take very serious as a dad of a child playing football,” he writes.
Barber, an old-school coach who took charge of the Minnesota West Community and Technical College defense for many years before switching over to the high school game, admits that Heads Up tackling represents “a change of the old ways.” But he supports Heads Up as an honest effort to promote safety.
“For the sake of the game, I want to make it as safe as possible,” Barber said. “This is one way that we’re trying to be proactive in the game of football.”
First look at the Trojans
The Worthington Trojans don’t participate in their first 2017 scrimmage until Aug. 26 against the Luverne Cardinals, and their season opener isn’t until Sept. 1 at Jordan, but this week’s camp allows Lais a good early look at his fall team.
Worthington finished 4-5 in 2016.
“We lost a lot of seniors who were good kids, good athletes,” Lais said on Monday. “But we do have a good senior class coming in -- good leaders, kids who like football. And our juniors now, there are some talented kids who will fill some holes. We have to replace some guys up front, but our skill guys, we should be pretty talented if we stay injury-free.”
All-conference end Tyler Linder returns to the Trojans along with quarterback Logan Huisman, wide receiver-cornerback Logan Somnis, linebacker Karter Honius, wide receiver-cornerback Obang Ojulu and lineman Nathan Boneschans.
“There’s a good interest, a good number of kids. We’ve had 40-45 showing up for our summer workouts, which is way up from last year,” Lais said.
In recent years, much has been written about declining football numbers in the U.S., in youth leagues as well as in the high school ranks, as injury concerns mount. But Lais doesn’t seem particularly worried about the interest in Worthington.
“What we talk about more is finding more two- and three-sport athletes -- kids that are out for other sports,” Lais said. “From some of the numbers I’ve read, there’s a trend going toward more non-specialized (sports). I think some of the stuff we’ve been seeing … are those successful athletes now talking about the benefits of playing more than one sport.”

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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