On a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn last weekend, a group of young football players got the opportunity of a lifetime: to learn from a Super Bowl-winning coach.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher attended a Youth Military Football League practice on Saturday to inspire the kids to play the game correctly — and safely.
He was at the practice representing USA Football’s Heads Up Football campaign. Heads Up trains players, coaches, and parents across the country on how to prepare young athletes to play football as safely as possible.
“I think there’s an attempt to make (football) safer, and it starts here,” Cowher said. “It starts right down here on a Saturday afternoon at this level because this is when we first learn these things.”
An important part of the Heads Up program is learning how to tackle. Using improper form when tackling can lead to concussions and other serious injuries. To minimize those risks, Heads Up makes sure players practice the most important tackling method: keeping your head up and out of the way all the time.
“A lot of people, they have a habit when they tackle of leading with the head, which is the worst thing they can do,” said YMFL president Joseph Ramos.
Cowher and YMFL coaches led the players through each step of a good and safe tackle: Get low, step to the ball carrier while keeping your head up, and wrap your arms around your opponent while driving with your legs. Whenever a player had his head down, coach Tim Cavanaugh would make him lift his helmet and position it properly.
Cavanaugh used an effective phrase to remind players of the correct way to tackle: “Eyes to the sky and you will rise. Eyes to the ground and you’ll go down.”
This technique — along with properly trained coaches leading drills — makes the game safer for players and eases the worries of their parents.
Keith Patterson felt good about seeing his son Marquis learn USA Football’s tackling techniques in his first few months of playing football.
“[Marquis is] saying things that they stress, which is good that he’s soaking it in,” Patterson said. “ ‘I’ve got to wrap up,’ ‘keep your head up.’ It was kind of cool.”
After drills, the players got to apply what they learned in the scrimmage. They were allowed to tackle, but could only hit their opponents in their upper bodies and not their legs.
There were plenty of good tackles, but the best one came from 17-year old linebacker Gabriel Morales. He quickly ran to the ball carrier on a running play and delivered a solid hit at his opponent’s chest while keeping his head up.
For Morales, the heads-up method isn’t just safer — it’s more effective. Morales used to lead with his head and not wrap up with his arms, which would sometimes allow his opponent to break the tackle. But now, his tackles are tough to escape.
“I actually hit a lot harder because when you go low and then hit with your shoulder, that’s the most power you can find,” he said.
Practice ended after the scrimmage, and the players got to relax after a fun and challenging day. The practice wasn’t just an opportunity to meet a legend like Cowher. It was also a chance for players to learn the importance of keeping their heads up at an early age.
It’s a lesson that will make them better, safer players as they get to high school, college, and, hopefully, the pros.
Learn more about Heads Up Football on the USA Football website.
Photos: Mark Von Holden/Associated Press