As Franklin marched toward the 3A state football title last season, coach Anthony Burgos noticed a significant decrease in head injuries suffered by his players.
"We had two concussions last year," Burgos said. The Indians coach attributed the improvement to his staff's adoption of techniques promoted by the Heads Up Football program, designed to teach better tackling technique, equipment fitting and player safety to combat concussions — and declining participation — in youth and high school football.
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association hopes to duplicate Franklin's improvement statewide by becoming the first state high school athletic association to endorse the Heads Up Football program, operated through a partnership between USA Football and NFL.
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"We need to do everything we can do to reduce the risk of playing football and we realized that what [Heads Up Football] is doing is a positive program to reduce that risk," Ned Sparks, executive director of the MPSSAA, said at a press conference Monday.
The state's endorsement means each high school football team in Maryland will have a player safety coach, certified by USA Football, who will implement the Heads Up program. The program will emphasize the proper fitting of helmets and other equipment, something Sparks admits "we hadn't been spending as much time on in the past."
The program will attempt to change tackling technique by moving players away from leading with their head when making a tackle back to what USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck described as "70s style tackling" of "an ascending blow with the head up and to the side."
"At some point we started telling kids to put their head into the chest of the ball carrier and we need to get away from that," he said.
Questions have arisen about the ability of Heads Up to be successful at the high school level when players have spent years honing a style of tackling that may be divergent with the one endorsed by Heads Up.
"Is the transition going to be tough for juniors or seniors? Yes, but hopefully our program has been doing a good job teaching them the proper way [to tackle]," Burgos said.
Hallenbeck said with proper coaching, the program can be successful at the high school level.
But with the violent nature of football, Halenbeck acknowledged that there are no gurantees. "We don't suggest a guarantee of [100 percent safety]," he said. "This [Heads Up Tackling] is really the starting point and not the end. We have a lot to learn."