On a windy day in in Macon, Ga., dozens of second-graders are standing on a university football field, crowded around Atlanta Falcons rookie Terren Jones.
Jones is helping to lead a Heads Up Football clinic, one of hundreds held across the country this spring by the nonprofit USA Football. Primarily funded by the NFL, these clinics teach parents about proper helmet and shoulder-pad fitting, and kids as young as 6 learn how to avoid concussions from pros like Jones.
“Nobody wants to get concussions, because it sucks, and it’s not fun,” says Jones. “I’ve had a couple.”
The Heads Up approach is simple. First, it modifies the typical stances players take when they’re lined up before the snap: feet wider than usual; shoulder blades squeezed back and down; stance sunk into a low squat, with hands forward and backs at 45-degree angles to the ground.
Normally, players dip lower, diving head first into the opponent. With heads upright, even the sound of the impact is different.
Not everyone is convinced that the training will actually prevent concussions. Former NFL tight end Nate Jackson says it might work in practice, but the tips will all go out the window in a real game.
“They can easily talk about these steps and techniques to making a safe tackle, but really the most effective way to hit and to tackle is to shoot yourself into them with your head,” Jackson says. “When there’s a game happening, and you get put in that survival mode, you react and you go headfirst. You go with the most effective way to do it.”
Still, doctors and scientists are hopeful the techniques will stick. Gerard Gioia, a neuropsychologist at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says if kids learn these techniques early, they will become instinctive.
“You’ve been taught how to do this all along, and the same way we learn any kind of skill,” Gioia says, “with enough practice and with enough appropriate coaching along the way, your best way of winning is to keep yourself in the game and to do this properly.”
At the Heads Up drill, Tracey Weekley is watching her 12-year-old run into a tackle dummy twice his size. She says her son has already suffered two concussions while playing recreational football.
“I wish that every youth football, from middle school, high school and rec, would have to take this seminar,” Weekley says. “But you have coaches that are teaching the way they were taught when they were playing football. So they’re teaching, harder the hit, the better the hit.”
Many coaches are getting the message, though. After pilot testing two years ago, more than 2,000 youth leagues have signed up. Thirty-five high schools nationwide are using the technique, and two of those teams won state championships.
Even the pros are buying in — theoretically. The NFL has added rules that mirror the Heads Up fundamentals, but the safest methods may not reach the professional level until the kids at Heads Up clinics grow up.