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Football: Teevens' seminar helping spread awareness for football safety in Carroll

Football: Teevens' seminar helping spread awareness for football safety in Carroll
Dartmouth safety Colin Boit, left, and wide receiver Charles Mack run through a tackling drill using the Mobile Virtual Player, an idea first pitched by head football coach Buddy Teevens. (Amanda Swinhart / For The Washington Post)

When Buddy Teevens approached his Dartmouth football coaching staff and players with the idea to ban tackling above the waist, he was met with anticipated scrutiny.

After all, how could you possible avoid tackling in Division I football?

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"Either we change the way we coach the game, or we won't have a game to coach."

Teevens adopted this slogan to go hand-in-hand with a method that other coaches looking in from the outside might see as, well, impossible. He spoke to a small group of coaches at Westminster High School on June 13 to spread awareness of this and how much it has improved the safety of his players since its implementation.

"The coaches and players thought I was kidding," Teevens said. "'It's Division I football, what do you mean we're not going to tackle?' When I explained my rationale and what the intent was and the expected outcome, it was embraced and the more they did it, the more they found that they didn't have to do it the way they had done it previously.

"They would still have success and they felt better physically about it and it's helped us find success on game day as well."

The Big Green struggled to generate winning seasons between 2004 and 2009. But once Teevens began to steer his players away from tackling above the waist, in an effort to avoid concussions and injuries, their records improved.

(The Ivy League agreed back in March to eliminate full-contact tackling at football practices.)

They finished 2010 at 6-4 and since then, they've continued to build on that success. They went 8-2 in 2014 and 9-1 in 2015, program-best records since 1997. Dartmouth shared a piece of the Ivy League title last season.

Teevens is a coaching veteran (26 seasons coaching at Maine, Dartmouth, Stanford and Tulane) and said that he never tackled when he played. He said he learned a lot about football from his father, who originally taught him a shoulder-based tackle.

"National attention focuses on concussive head injuries that really occurred five or six years ago," Teevens said. "It made me start to think about it and the product of places I had worked. I had a conversation with Jeff Fisher, the [Los Angeles] Rams coach ... you know, I was a quarterback and never could tackle but I played OK on Saturdays. It felt right at the time so we went all in as opposed to easing into it and it's worked out for us."

He showed the Westminster audience a 20-minute video titled "The Dartmouth Way" with a variety of upper-body tackling drills the team currently uses to avoid more dangerous forms of tackling.

According to the video, the missed tackle rate of Big Green players dropped about 50 percent and the overall health of the team steadily improved.

Westminster's football program has practiced similar strategies within the last 10 years, said varsity coach Matt Study. After getting through the required heat acclimatization period in August, the team practices full contact for two or three days. But the coaching staff is continuing to look for ways to keep their players safe.

The team developed a drill called TAPS, where they won't take a player to the ground; rather they pretend to tackle them by positioning for their hip. The point is to keep their eyes focused on the opponent's closest hip and keep their heads raised and their eyes up, Study said.

"Head injuries are the hot topic right now in the entire country — a movie came out, there's data and statistics," said Study, referring to the film "Concussion."

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"We've seen recreational numbers dropping because parents are afraid to put kids in thinking as soon as they get their helmets on, the kids will start banging heads. That's what I want to get across to the community and Carroll in general that we can make the game safe if we want to keep coaching it."

Owls linebacker and running back Garrett Vandervalk, a senior-to-be, has been playing football since he was in first grade and said he was taught the safest possible ways to tackle from the start. The three-year starter at Westminster continues to work through safe tackling drills with his Owls teammates.

He said he would be confused if told there would no longer be tackling in football, but that it would take a big game-time decision to implement that strategy.

"We do it the right way and go over tackling every day in practice," Vandervalk said. "The Seattle Seahawks have this thing called 'Hawk Tackling' and through my first three years, we watch film at camp and they show you the right ways to tackle and how to keep your head up while keeping your opponent safe."

In Dartmouth's way, it's possible for players to hit a lot, just not each other. Their close quarter drills involve all positions and get every player moving while limiting their distance and separation from other players. Teevens has seen a reduced risk in injury as well as cleaner executions at all positions on the playing field and in practice.

In his closing remarks at Westminster, Teevens asked his audience to think about their players or their sons and how much the game could be saved if awareness to end tackling is spread across multiple platforms.

"I really feel that in the next five to seven years, it's going to be something we won't have a choice about," Study said. "We want to get Carroll in position so that we are prepared for the future instead of waiting back and get caught by surprise with it. It's something that will inevitably happen and it's a good thing.

"I'm not sure why anyone wouldn't want to save their kids and win on Friday nights. I'm of the philosophy that you win on Friday nights as a result of the work you put in Monday through Thursday, but you don't have to beat on each other's brains to do it."

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