Heads Up camp in Lake Forest tries to make football safer

In January, President Barack Obama, a football fan, personalized the issue of safety in an increasingly violet sport that has become America’s favorite.

“I would not let my son play pro football,” he said.

Those words resonated with many parents throughout the country who are debating the advantages and disadvantages of allowing their children to participate in football. The comments caught the attention of Reggie Medinger, the player safety coaching clinic director for the Chicagoland Youth Football League.

The league includes 32 different programs and features teams in areas such as Barrington, Mundelein, Libertyville and Buffalo Grove.

“Football is under siege, but the game is safer than it’s ever been,” said Medinger, who noted that concussions in the Chicagoland Youth Football League represent about two percent of injuries. He said that compares to about eight percent five years ago.

Medinger is involved with a USA Football initiative called Heads Up Football, which is designed to make the game safer. USA Football is the sport’s national governing body. On June 28 in Lake Forest, there was a Heads Up Football player safety coaching clinic that was attended by area coaches, mostly from the youth level.

The platform includes tutorials for proper tackling techniques, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concussion recognition and response protocols, sessions on heat and hydration and instruction on proper helmet and shoulder pad fitting. There also is an opportunity for coaches to take the USA Football accredited Level 1 Coach Certification Course.

Just like learning a foreign language, Medinger said the key is to teach children the right way to block and tackle at a young age.

“The earlier the kids learn, the safer the game is,” he said. “It’s muscle memory like anything else.”

Anthony Stone, a Chicago-based master trainer for USA Football, said the program works.

“Heads-up tackling makes the game better and safer,” he said. “I’ve turned down coaching jobs to be involved with this because it’s something I’m so passionate about. This is about teaching the game the right way.”

While concussions and other head injuries garner the most media attention, Heads Up Football also spends a great deal of time on best practices for preventing heat issues and proper equipment fitting.

One technique Stone uses when he coaches is to have the coaching staff bring water to the players or have the water stationed near the drill so that all players have easy access to it during a water break. With respect to equipment, Stone said that a snug helmet fit is important. For example, he said that the red mark on the forehead of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning when he removes his helmet is actually evidence that his helmet fits properly.

“These clinics are a way to make the game safer,” Stone said.

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