PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin wasn’t trying to invent a catchphrase, just something his players would remember when getting into the murky waters of what is and what isn’t a legal — not to mention safe — hit.
The Steelers coach came up with one anyway.
Now the team and one of the nation’s leading concussion experts hope Tomlin’s “don’t hit the head, don’t use the head” will help educate young players on how to avoid dangerous collisions that lead to significant injury.
“This campaign has the possibility of tremendous change for our youth and high school football players,” said Dr. Micky Collins, a Hermon, Maine, native and the clinical and executive director of UPMC’s sports medicine concussion program.
The initiative, considered the first of its kind by an NFL team, will include a packet sent to various middle school, high school and youth football programs throughout Western Pennsylvania. The packet will contain a fact sheet about the UPMC concussion program, a letter from Tomlin and Collins and posters for locker rooms with the phrase splashed across a picture of the coach.
“If these words are really followed, I guarantee we’re going to prevent a lot of injuries,” Collins said.
Tomlin said the phrase just came to him one day during practice. He was going back and forth with safety Ryan Clark — who was fined twice last season for illegal hits — during minicamp when general manager Kevin Colbert, who then called Collins and told him maybe Tomlin was onto something.
“I got a call from Kevin Colbert saying ‘I’ve been hearing this, players are responding to it, it’s something we’d like to make into a campaign for kids,'” Collins said. “I said to myself it kind of makes sense. We’re talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers here. They’re trendsetters. They’re ahead of the curve. They do what’s right for the sport.”
Tomlin, who has two sons who play youth football, said the team put together a video on the right way and the wrong way to tackle or hit an opponent during the course of a game. The practice guidelines outlined on page 143 of the CBA limit teams to 14 padded practices — meaning, shoulder pads — a week during the regular season, with 11 of those coming in the first 11 weeks and the final three spread out over the last six weeks.
That leaves little time or opportunity for hands-on instruction, putting the coach’s emphasis on preparation and education. The Steelers — who wrap up the preseason on Thursday night against Carolina — have historically been one of the NFL’s most progressive teams in limiting contact during practice.
“The scarcity of the opportunity is what makes it difficult to coach,” Tomlin said. “You want to highlight those situations … we talk making the player more cognizant.”
Collins pointed to a recent study published by his department estimates there are 300,000 football-related concussions every year. He estimates 72 percent of the concussions come on helmet-to-helmet hits. Those kinds of hits are largely voluntary ones. Collins, who has treated Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby through multiple concussions, said the goal is to give young players the knowledge they can be just as effective and far more safe by using their shoulders and arms to get the job done.
“We’ll see 85 patients in our clinic this week. Of those, 50-55 will be players who had head-to-head hits,” Collins said. “Those are kids that we don’t have to see.”
Tomlin spoke with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about the project and said Goodell was “encouraged and excited about it” but allowed the target of the program is to protect the millions of players who will never make it to the sport’s highest level.
“I think it’s a great game, I think there’s many life lessons to learn from playing the game of football if done properly,” Tomlin said. “Hopefully this initiative is one that puts parents at ease.”