Former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso was in Green Bay last year for an NFL game, where he met Hall-of-Fame linebacker Willie Lanier.
Lanier, a former Kansas City Chief, played with a protective pad on the outside of his helmet, as Kelso did for the last five years of his Bills career in the 1990s.
“I said, ‘Willie, did that work for you?’” Kelso recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know, Mark, because after my rookie year when I had a couple concussions, I never used my head again involved in a tackle.’”
That’s a lesson Kelso is preaching across Western New York these days in his new role as an ambassador for USA Football, the national governing body for the sport at the youth level.
USA Football, with the considerable financial backing of the NFL, is waging a nationwide “Heads Up Football” campaign to promote safety in the sport.
A group of 35 representatives from youth football leagues across Western New York were at the Bills’ Fieldhouse Saturday to learn about the campaign.
“It’s all about a comprehensive, consistent message across the country at all levels of football on what the proper tackling technique is,” Kelso said. “How to teach it, how to make sure kids are using it properly, and how they’re developing muscle memory to engage themselves when they’re playing in a game and don’t have time to think about it.
“It’s also how to engage the local community so they have proper medical protocol for recognizing, diagnosing and treating concussions, and re-entry to play rules for concussive like symptoms.”
The Bills donated $25,000 through the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation to support the program, which will in part allow all youth coaches in USA Football to become certified in the program.
The campaign comes at a time when the NFL is facing increasing pressure over the issue of concussions, including lawsuits from roughly 4,000 former players.
“The NFL, I think, feels some responsibility and accountability, which I think they have, and which I think I have as an ex-player.
“Shoot, I was taught to tackle with my face. Put your facemask in his chest. That’s completely gone now.”
Kelso thinks a lot of the risk of concussion can be taken out of the game by teaching proper technique. So does Ken Stoldt, chairman of the Western New York (or Section VI) high school football federation.
“I think they’re trying to change the whole culture of this game,” Stoldt said of USA Football. “And I really believe strongly in what USA Football is doing because they’re starting at the grass roots.”
Coaches at all levels have been talking about tackling with the head up for years. Creating a standardized teaching program on tackling and delivering it nationwide is new.
“The difficult thing for coaches is going to be the terminology,” Stoldt said. “Bite the ball. Mask in the chest. All of those different phrases, we’re trying to get rid of those.”
Wrapping up is another phrase USA Football is avoiding.
“When we wrap, the arms go out and automatically our head goes down,” Stoldt said. “They’re trying to create a movement here that’s an upward force, as opposed to putting the shoulder down and wrapping. … It used to be we wanted the kids to hit with the top of the shoulder.”
Now coaches and players will be taught the aim-point is the front part of the shoulder, or the upper chest area.
“Now it’s a little different technique to say we’re going to shoot the arms through and we’re going to rip to the top and take our eyes to the sky more, so we keep our head completely out of it,” Kelso said. “You’re going to elevate yourself so that you’re below the facemask of the player you’re trying to tackle. Then you get into the shoot position so you shoot your arms through and rip up through the tackle and come up from underneath their pads so your head and face are all up.”
The 35 representatives at One Bills Drive Saturday will go back to their leagues and pass on the coaching drills, as well as conduct clinics for coaches, parents and players on concussion rules and proper helmet-fitting.
Regarding return-to-play rules after a concussion, USA Football has adopted a five-step process for allowing a player to get back on the field. Each step takes at least 24 hours.
“A kid can not even start the five-day return-to-play protocol until he’s received medical clearance to do so,” Stoldt said. “If a kid shows symptoms at any point between steps, you go back to the first step and the clock to return starts all over. … If a team gets clearance from a player’s doctor on a Tuesday, there’s no way that kid’s playing Friday night.”
Bills coach Doug Marrone spoke to the participants in the clinic.
“I’ve always been told to make sure your head’s up and never put your head down,” Marrone said. “We’ve always been told never use equipment as a weapon. I think somewhere along the line we’ve lost that message. I think we have to be proactive in making sure we realize that we’re promoting a safer game, at every level.”