NEW YORK — In a conference room down the hall from his office, Roger Goodell played the role of running back while a youth coach demonstrated the safest way to tackle.
The NFL commissioner was impressed.
“I like your technique initiative,” Goodell told three player safety coaches trained by USA Football, the national governing body for youth football.
Heads Up Football was launched Wednesday. The program uses a three-step game plan to ensure safer play. USA Football is training the player safety coaches, who then will teach coaches at their leagues and educate parents and players on the proper way of tackling to avoid injuries. Their motto could be “Get your head out of it.”
Those coaches also will educate everyone involved in youth football about concussion awareness and the correct way to identify and use equipment. One of the breakthroughs is encouraging parents to be “collectively part of the solution,” said Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football’s executive director.
“I really like the idea of the parents being involved,” Goodell added. “I have 11-year-old girls and the first thing I focus on is the coaches. Are they capable of supervising? Are they capable of teaching?”
For now, Heads Up Football is a pilot program that Hallenbeck hopes becomes the norm across America.
The first three player safety coaches are Rick Regalado of Santa Monica, Calif., Tom Healy of Fairfax, Va., and Michael Brandt of Noblesville, Ind. Each was chosen by the commissioner of his local league, and, after the coaches completed USA Football’s training regimen, they headed back home to pass on the knowledge.
Ideally, there will be player safety coaches working in every league, although that could take years to implement. For now, Regalado, Healy and Brandt will be hands-on instructors and observers in their leagues, working with coaches, parents, players and game officials.
“We can start by building on this program,” Brandt said. “Parents are a little leery and coaches are used to doing things a certain way, but we can show this is the right way.”
The right way of tackling begins with the breakdown: feet set, hands sunken, the arc of the back straight and the knees bent. The head is up at all times.
Then the defender gets on balance to make a hit, getting his strength from his hips and shooting up out of the initial position with the head up and back. The tackler wraps up the ball carrier, and the head never is a part of the action.
“You still emphasize the power in the hips and legs and arms, while keeping the head away,” Hallenbeck said.
Goodell noted that such technique also works for the offensive player.
Equally important in Heads Up Football is the enhanced awareness of identifying and treating concussions. Healy says a “culture change” is needed.
“No doubt about it, safety has not always come first,” he said, noting that anyone — coach, parent or player — can make the wrong decision, misidentifying the injury or allowing a player to return to the field too soon. “There is not one point of this program that can hurt as we educate everyone.”
Another part of the education process will be in equipment, making sure players have the safest gear, which fits properly and is worn correctly.
“In the context of what they are doing, this all makes sense,” said Dr. Stan Herring, a team physician for the Seahawks and a member of USA Football’s wellness committee. “You want a player safety coach to know how to coach the game; that makes it safer. You want someone who knows Xs and Os and they have got that. You want concussion awareness and they have that. Equipment doesn’t pre vent concussions, but proper-fitting equipment makes sense, and you want to know they know how to fit equipment.
“This is the most helpful thing I have seen for youth football. It helps give coaches, players and athletes direction.”
Goodell believes it’s a program with legs.
“One thing I am convinced you will see happen,” Goodell said, “is other sports adapt.”