Former Northwestern football coach focuses on making the game safer

07/20/2014 12:33 AM

07/20/2014 12:36 AM

Reading a USA Today newspaper last summer, former Northwestern High School football coach Jimmy Wallace’s eyes narrowed when he saw a familiar mug in the sports section: retired Concord (N.C.) High School football coach E.Z. Smith.

Smith was featured in a story about Heads Up Football, a program that is trying to change America’s most popular sport for the better. After reading the story, Wallace, who retired after the 2010 season, was energized. He called Smith.

“When I called E.Z., he said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get involved with this.’”

Wallace did. He went to a player safety clinic last July with the Carolina Panthers, where the Heads Up bug was firmly implanted.

Culture change

Heads Up Football was launched by USA Football in 2013 to make the game safer. Five safety focuses are the core of Heads Up: concussion and heat awareness, hydration, proper fitting of equipment, and proper tackling form.

“The No. 1 thing is to enhance player safety,” Wallace said. “That’s what this is all about, the health and welfare of kids; to change the culture of football.”

To do that, Heads Up Football offers training that is certified and backed by the scientific and medical communities.

As Master Trainers, Wallace and Smith are at the top of the Heads Up pyramid. Master Trainer certification takes two days of intensive learning. There are about 70 nationwide.

Master Trainers traverse the country training Player Safety Coaches, known as PSCs, who work with teams or leagues overseeing and teaching Heads Up principles. It’s no sleepy day full of videos in a darkened room. PSCs undergo a full day of focused instruction, with classroom learning in the morning and on-field practical work in the afternoon, including 18 proper tackling technique drills.

Wallace said a PSC is “a mentor, not an I-gotcha-guy” who is waiting to tell on a coach for not letting his players get water. “They’re just trying to help,” said Wallace.

“They’re gonna observe, do everything we can to make the game safer,” he said.

After undergoing training and certification in Indianapolis last year, Wallace joined Smith, who he met at a Clemson coaching clinic in 1985, and hit the road. They’ve spoken at clinics hosted by the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans and the Carolina Panthers, Wake County Schools in North Carolina, and in Marietta, Ga., where 39 middle school associations from across the state came to learn about Heads Up. They’ve also spoken at several clinics exclusively for mothers of youth football players.

Because of their passion, and the respect that their combined 75 years of coaching and six state titles command, Smith and Wallace are perfect conduits for USA Football.

“When they talk, everybody listens,” said Peter Vacho, the Carolina Panthers’ liaison with USA Football. “They’re still a part of that football culture.”

Coaches being coached

The goal of Wallace and Smith’s clinic demonstrations is to get some of the participants – all if possible – to become PSCs.

PSCs are trained in spotting concussions and possible dehydration or potential over-heating dangers. PSCs are especially crucial for youth football, where athletic trainers aren’t as common.

Wallace knows adding PSCs will make youth football safer, while also easing the fears of parents concerned about letting their kids play the game.

Parents and coaches from the York Little Cougars of the Heads Up Football League confirm Wallace’s belief. The Little Cougars, run by Vacho, partnered with the Carolina Panthers to become a Heads Up Football team, one of four in York County and 60 in South Carolina. All coaches have to be certified, which lends a degree of comfort to parents.

Shane Benfield, who coaches the Little Cougars and has 9- and 11-year-old boys playing, laments that many youth coaches have no higher training.

“In this league, coaches are being coached,” he said. “When you get in other leagues, you’re just basically putting people out there. You’re not coaching coaches. That’s what Heads Up football does.”

Wallace was more blunt: “if you’re a doctor, you’re certified. If you’re a lawyer, you’re certified. To fly an airplane, you’re certified, and you have to have a license to drive a car. You should be certified to coach football.”

Benfield played when coaches wanted to hear the crack of helmets bashing together during practice. Now players should tackle with their shoulder pads, their head out as they hit the opponent in the front of his shoulder pad. It’s a considerably less violent act and safer for the players.

Trees that bend

That doesn’t mean selling Heads Up Football is as simple as telling coaches about the program and watching them scurry to sign up. Many are still unconvinced.

“All of the sudden you have to admit, ‘hey, maybe we don’t know everything,’” said Michael Haynes. “Or maybe there is a better way to do something.”

Haynes, of USA Football in Indianapolis, cited several road-blocks Heads Up Football encounters: coaches’ egos, old-school football culture, the depth and length of training, that many states already require coaches to have concussion awareness training, and coaches don’t want to do additional training. Others simply don’t like the phrasing used to describe the tackling techniques.

Smith’s rebuttal: “Why do you wear a seat belt? Is it just because it’s the law, or is it the right thing to do? It’s all about making it safer, and any coach that does not want to make the game safer and make his players be in an environment that is safe, should no longer be coaching, no matter who or what level.”

Reaching stubborn coaches is where respected veterans such as Wallace and Smith have been crucial for the Heads Up program.

“A lot of coaches respect their opinion,” Hayes said. “So even if the coach is a little hesitant at the beginning, I think that because those guys are supporting us, it allows them to hear that we’re truly about education. We’re trying to educate coaches and minimize that liability.”

Wallace and Smith straddle football’s old and new divide. Wallace remembers three-a-day practices, playing in wool jerseys and feeding kids salt tablets instead of water. Now, he shakes his head at the thought.

“We’re very transparent about that. We don’t hold nothing back,” Wallace said. “Our culture’s changed and our society has changed, and we’ve got to change too. Those trees that bend with the wind last longer.”

Gold standard

Interest and support for Heads Up has ballooned in the last year. The NFL, the NCAA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Football Coaches Association, Pop Warner and a slew of other three and four-letter organizations are backing the program. Heads Up began adding high schools to the fold this year, exploding the number of football players that now have PSC-certified coaches.

In early June, the Wake (N.C.) County Public School System, the 16th biggest school district in the country, became the first in the Carolinas to adopt the Heads Up program at its 52 schools. Five other school systems in North Carolina followed Wake County’s lead.

No schools or school systems in South Carolina have adopted Heads Up, but Wallace and Smith have spoken with South Carolina High School League director Jerome Singleton. Rock Hill school district spokeswoman Elaine Baker said in an email that the city’s schools could independently decide to adopt Heads Up practices, or that the schools’ athletic directors could present a proposal for Heads Up adoption to district administrators and the school board for consideration.

When and if a Rock Hill school decides to adopt Heads Up standards, USA Football will be eager to help.

“The game today, it’s safer than it’s ever been. But from our standpoint, we want to be the gold standard,” said Haynes.

To Wallace, Heads Up Football isn’t just an NFL public relations move. The mission is much more serious than that, which is why he was down at the Herald’s office two weeks ago clicking through his Heads Up PowerPoint presentation with the hope that a newspaper article might spark someone’s interest just as his had been.

Wallace, who stares you right in the face when he’s speaking, paused mid-spiel.

“Hey look, it’s a great game,” he said. “We’ve just got to figure out a way to make it better.”

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