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‘Heads Up’ on concussions

Under attack, football coaches get re-educated

This is part 2 of a series of concussion-related stories that will appear each Friday in August in the Inquirer.

By TODD SLISS
Todd Sliss Photos

Gabe Infante discusses proper, safe and effective tackling.

 

Running a football program is harder than ever. Besides nonsense like Deflategate and the more recent New York Jets locker-room fight that cost them a quarterback, there is one word people are focusing on from the pro l
evel down to the youth level: concussions. The threat of a concussion — from playing football more than any other sport — has parents scared to suit their kids up in helmets and pads on the gridiron. While Scarsdale Youth Football has not seen a drop in the number of pre-existing participants, new player sign-ups among younger kids are way down.
Gabe Infante demonstrates Heads Up tackling and blocking.
 
“The numbers have definitely been hurting the last couple of years,” SYF president Rippy Philipps said. “I would say the reason is, unfortunately, what we’re reading about the NFL and Division I football. We also several years ago did a concussion discussion in Scarsdale and I believe that it was really poorly run. I thought there was a lot of misinformation and I think that was really detrimental to our program.”

Scarsdale is known for education, but residents are not immune to panic.

“Here’s the problem happening in Scarsdale right now — we see the NFL, we see college football and a lot of the parents here go by what they perceive as being damaging,” SYF coach P.T. Adams said. “There’s no other sport that teaches camaraderie, no other sport that teaches you to rely on others to achieve a goal. If we were able to get the word out better I think the sport would come back. It’s going to take some time, a lot more education.”

(Philipps and Adams are among several SYF coaches who are Scarsdale graduates who returned to town as adults. Philipps graduated from Scarsdale High School 1981, Adams in 1986. Both played in college, Philipps at Franklin & Marshall, where he is currently the head of the F&M Football Association and a recruiter for the program, Adams at Iona College.)

Instead of sitting around and watching the sport they love fall by the wayside, coaches in the Scarsdale Youth Football Association and at the high school are doing everything they can to eliminate the fear by educating themselves and others about the game. On Sunday, June 28, Scarsdale and Pelham youth football partnered to bring USA Football and coach Gabe Infante of St. Joe’s Prep in Pennsylvania to Scarsdale for a day-long Heads Up seminar that focused on changing the game of football — making it safer — through the actions and teachings of coaches. Scarsdale and Pelham footed the $1,500 bill, but invited neighboring football programs to participate to spread the knowledge.

“Like Coach Infante said, football has been under a lot of attacks. You go through the history back to Theodore Roosevelt when they wanted to ban football. The Ivy League coaches got together and some of the rules we have today are rules they put in place back then,” SHS varsity coach Andy Verboys said. “Because it’s such a popular sport it’s constantly under attack, so we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve and be proactive.”

This is Infante’s sixth season as head coach at St. Joe’s Prep. In 2013, St. Joe’s won its first PIA AAAA state title. Infante also head coached at Paramus Catholic School, and has experience with Bergen Catholic, Queen of Peace High School and Memorial High School. He not only wins, but he teaches the game the right way. He does this by focusing on proper technique for tackling and blocking and making sure players are strong enough through strength, conditioning and hydration to maintain control of their bodies. The aim is to eliminate out-of-control play that often leads to major injuries like concussions.

Over 30 area coaches, including 10 from Scarsdale, listened and learned and watched and participated in demonstrations on tackling and blocking. They were glued to their seats for almost seven hours — Infante did not utter one word that wasn’t inspirational and/or educational. The coaches nodded and agreed with a big, “We can do that, we want to do that,” attitude.

The seminar was also a chance to connect with other coaches in similar positions from other towns in Westchester, the Bronx and Long Island.

“I was out last night with two other couples and I told them today I was going to be at a concussion seminar,” Adams said. “They said, well if you coach that’s really good. I said that whether I coach football or anything, being educated in important. I think we have to do better as a youth football club to educate people. The problem is it’s a hot story — everyone wants to write about it, everyone wants to be the one to say, ‘I told you this would happen.’ The truth of the matter, especially what I heard today from other coaches, is that more kids today have gone to college and are doing well in life, have learned discipline and now are having success. If it wasn’t for football, who knows where they would be?”

For Philipps, hosting the seminar and having such high attendance to bring back to the rest of the Scarsdale coaches at all levels was “powerful.” The seminar also reinforced for him that football is “the most special sport in the world.”

When Infante was growing up his football coach would not allow him to turn in his uniform when the going got tough. Infante realized at a young age that the game could help him grow. For it to become his livelihood shows the impact coaches can have on athletes. After all, they spend more time with kids from the high school level on than any other single person during the season.

“He’s not just teaching them to play football — he’s teaching them to be men,” Adams said. “And it plays a big part. When I played, my parents were getting divorced and I had a coach that stepped up. If it wasn’t for him I don’t know where I would be. There’s always a story behind every good coach … Forget about Xs and Os, just look at how much he cares. I think that’s the sign of a great coach.”


Breaking it down

The combination of reducing the risk of concussions through technique and coaching, along with recognizing concussions and using strict return-to-play protocols to avoid post-concussion and second-impact syndromes are the best bets to help football weather the storm.

Of course, concussions will always be a part of sports, football among them, but lowering the number is the goal. It’s something the youth and varsity football in Scarsdale have already seen in the past few years. Verboys has prided himself on lowering the number of concussions since taking over the program in 2006. While injuries have certainly hurt the football program over the years with top players missing valuable time, the Raiders have mainly been out for injuries below the brain. At the youth level, Philipps said that there have been zero concussions reported from grades 3-8 in the last two years. The year before there were two. SYF stresses to the parents and players the importance of reporting anything suspicious, and the last two years would be more likely for people to over-report than ignore the situation.

“We are really cognizant of it, but based on what they showed us today we can do an even better job having less contact during practice, which I think is really important,” Philipps said. “We had a really dedicated bunch of coaches who were willing to give up their Sunday with their family to be here to get better at this game to give our kids the best experience we possibly can. It’s all about the kids.”

Data and studies say that among mainstream high school sports, football has the highest number of concussions per exposure to the game. Boys’ soccer is second. Leading the way for girls is soccer, and girl soccer players are much more likely to suffer a concussion than boys. As data is never current, we won’t know for some time how programs like Heads Up will impact the number of concussions in the sport of football.

But why is a football player more likely to suffer a concussion? Certainly the physical nature of the game plays a part, but it’s also the fact that there are more players making contact at one time than in a sport like lacrosse or ice hockey or soccer or basketball, and there are more football players on a team than any other sport by far. Plus, when runners and tacklers are leading with their heads the risk goes up exponentially. That’s what coaches are working hard to eliminate — the risk — by teaching the game just a tad differently and getting rid of old terminology and tactics like “bite the ball,” which instructs a player to use his or her facemask to attack the ball. “By no means do we say that it’s a perfectly safe environment,” Verboys said.

There is a proper way to be on both sides of the ball, and neither includes putting your head down and trying to run through a brick wall.

Verboys is a student of the game and grabs the ear of any coach he can, including some of the top ones around the country. Still, after what he learned at Heads Up he was “blown away.” He had seen videos and read up on Heads Up, but to see it in motion at his school made it come alive.

“It wasn’t just about concussions,” Verboys said. “Concussions just happen to be one of our attacks, but there are injuries that are preventive, like heat exhaustion and hydration. It’s all about becoming a better athlete and developing kids.

“I love the part about just being an athlete and learning how to be in control. A kid out of control is more dangerous than a kid that knows how to do it. It’s about becoming a better athlete and being stronger physically so you can come under control and that’s why we spend so much time with the conditioning and strength.”

When it comes time to teach tackling and blocking, the detailed steps illustrated by Infante and in USA Football’s manual are right there for coaches to access.

“From a safety standpoint there’s a way to utilize the top part of your shoulder and making sure kids are not using their heads, which is vital,” Philipps said. “The reality is whether you are blocking with your hands or tackling with your neck, you’re keeping your head up and your head is not going to be used as a weapon. Once in a while will your head be involved? It will, but the key is to minimize that as much as you possibly can.”

Coaches, Infante said, must be “vigilant” on correcting players in practices in order to change the culture of leading with the head and leaving your feet, which too often leads to helmet contact.

The drills and techniques Infante taught led to other discussions about the game, including the change in the way practices are run. They used to be full pads full-time — now practices are run with as little contact and equipment as possible leading up to games. That has also helped reduce the risk.

Football is the only sport where you spend less time training in full equipment than other sports like hockey and lacrosse where you wear everything whenever you’re on the ice or field. When you get a 7-pound helmet and all the pads on, you’ve got to be prepared to tax your body even more.

“We tell kids you have to train hard for 1,000 minutes to play one minute in a game,” Verboys said. “We’re here all summer and we’ve been going since June for the varsity kids. I feel confident about the future of Scarsdale football. It’s got a long line of tradition just like the Ivy Leagues do. If it’s good for them it’s good for Scarsdale.”

Concussions are not limited to football. Or even sports.

“The best statement that Coach Infante said was that for kids under the age of 18 the most concussions are caused by bicycling and you don’t see the national bike groups ripping bikes out of Toys R Us,” Verboys said. “You don’t see them putting all the money into research on how to prevent concussions. Football, we get attacked and we counter it to try to make it a safer environment. The truth of the matter is why football has been so successful is the community that we build. It’s the boys that become men. It’s the team concept and community that far outweighs the risk of that danger. That’s what keeps football thriving in today’s society.”

Many parents — concussions aside — worry about letting their children pick up the game at a later age since they have not been playing all along. Verboys counters with: “If every year you’re taught the right thing and the same thing, you can jump in and you can start learning.”

Scarsdale runs its offense and defense the same way from varsity on down to youth. With each level, the intensity, size and strength certainly increase. By the time varsity rolls around, today’s youth players will have spent years learning the same things the same way. “When we’re out here with kindergartners teaching how to catch and throw and pitch, we’re talking about all of this kind of stuff,” Verboys said. “Then it builds up and the kids feel confident. And like he said, a kid who is confident is going to do things the right way and help prevent injuries.”

You have two sides of the coin: those who would sooner do away with football altogether for its brutal/violent nature and those who criticize rule changes that protect the players more at the pro level because it’s perceived as a wimpier game. Perhaps the middle ground is where we are headed with football.

After all, there is not a large outcry from the medical community to abolish contact sports due to one or two concussions when handled properly for an overwhelming majority who return to play after one concussion in 7-10 days. It’s that other 10-15 percent of athletes from all sports who need more monitoring and rest, and perhaps eventually do need to find other endeavors off the field of play. The NFL players who are suffering from unfortunate physical and mental consequences after years of pounding did not have the information or support from coaches and medical staff that we have today. They returned to games concussed time and time again.

The bottom line for Infante and other football enthusiasts is this: “It’s a great game — we need to protect it.”


Success stories

Al DiFalco had four boys — Chris, Dan, Nick and Phil — play football in Scarsdale, in addition to many other sports they were passionate about. Dan is a football coach at Ardsley High School, and even though Dad DiFalco hasn’t had a kid in youth football in over a decade, he still volunteers as a coach.

“I could stay at work and make big money, but I leave my job,” DiFalco said. “I’m self-employed as an electrical contractor. You weigh the scales and I enjoy it. We have all good guys here.

“Playing football, like Bobby Keith would say, is not for everybody. It’s a contact sport, but your values of working hard and having leadership and camaraderie out of all sports it’s got that. Lacrosse and hockey, too. I could say maybe it’s the contact sports that have more to do with it.”

Infante asked what the closest thing to football is and DiFalco thought for a moment and said, “Boot camp.” He later said, “We don’t have that anymore for these kids, so this is it.”

DiFalco was the oldest Scarsdale coach at the seminar and even he came away enthused. There were no old dogs — just new tricks that they were willing and able to learn so they could take them back to the pack.

“The reason why I still coach is because I get the thrill out of impacting even two or three kids a year, these timid kids and you bring them to a point where they are really feeling confident where they can really play with their peers,” DiFalco said. “I’ve had kids come to a practice in seventh grade and cry and went on to play college football. They call us. When they see us they come out of their way to run over to us.

“It’s not about the winning — it’s about helping all the kids. At the end of the season it’s how many you touched. I’m not focused on the studs. If you can get a kid who you know could play at a high school level and he gets that confidence, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I come back. Being an electrical contractor and hiring young kids and teaching them the business you’ve got to be tough, but fair and give them confidence.”

Particularly under Verboys, Scarsdale has produced dozens of college football players this century, mostly at the Division III level, a handful IAA and even a current DI in Andrew Verboys Jr.

“We’ve had plenty go to the next level and they are all going to great schools,” Philipps said. “What we’re really trying to accomplish here is to give kids life lessons in youth football, have them have a fantastic high school experience and hopefully have them take some of that to go to the next level and play or get into a better school using their athletic talents.

“The important thing we’ve done football-wise, unlike a lot of the other sports in town, is we believe that it’s important for doing strength and speed work, which can be used for all sports and getting healthy in life. But football season is getting in shape in the summer, playing Aug. 15 and around Thanksgiving it’s over. We don’t have year-long football. They don’t have to play on 8,000 travel teams. It’s really a contained time frame and all of us are a little bit old-fashioned in that way. We want our kids to play other sports, but this whole idea of specializing, we as a program don’t necessarily agree with that.”

The future is now for the youth football in Scarsdale.

“As we educate ourselves we’re going to get better,” Adams said. “Kids today are faster, stronger and better and they are taking into consideration what they are eating, where they are going and what they are doing. I think football will overcome. It’s just going to take time.”

In high school football, with a rule change in Section 1, you now get up to 10 chances to play each year. And that’s it. There are showcases to show off your skills, but football is not a travel sport. “That’s what makes this the best sport in the world,” Philipps said.

Football will not go down quietly. “I think football will prevail, but it’s going to take a lot of work,” Adams said.

Work the coaches are willing to do.


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

 

August 14, 2015