MISSOULA — America’s favorite sport is starting to become less popular. Football faces many challenges, and the most important is how to make the game safer. We went On Special Assignment to find out if maybe a drastic change to the game could be the answer.
Helena author Brian D’Ambrosio recently set out to chronical the history of Montanans in the NFL. While interviewing men who reached the pinnacle of their sport decades ago, he kept hearing an unexpected theme.
“If they could do it over again, one guy told me he would have played baseball,” said Brian D’Ambrosio, the author of Montana in the NFL. “That surprised me, because I thought personally that they were going to say, ‘Yeah. I did it. I’m glad I did it. I would have done it over again.’ But that wasn’t the response I got in many cases.”
The health issues of retired players continue to make news and clearly provide a cautionary tale. Youth teams across the nation have seen their participation numbers drop, and players in their primes are stepping away from the game like never before. Former Montana high school player of the year Andrew Grinde recently retired after suffering a concussion while suiting up for Yale.
Players keep hearing about these risks, but don’t always keep safety in mind on the field.
“I do think that in practice you do see people hold up differently and do things differently,” said Montana Head Athletic Trainer J.C. Weida when asked how Grizzly players act differently today than a decade ago. “I still think that during a game, it’s hard.”
“When you’re in the heat of battle, and you’ve got a guy coming across the middle, they still want to make that highlight reel,” added Missoula Loyola head coach Todd Hughes.
Some feel the equipment designed for protection, can actually cause a safety problem.
“Helmets, shoulder pads, some of those kinds of things, give people a little bit of a feeling of invincibility,” said Weida.
“Helmets have become so much lighter. And we saw a span where they were used as a weapon almost,” admitted Missoula Big Sky head coach Matt Johnson.
Football is trying to change and trying to limit hits by and to the head, so coaches are borrowing techniques from a similar sport with a few key differences.
“Rugby-style tackling takes the head out of the equation,” said Montana Youth Rugby Administrator Misty Zahn. “Where typically it was hit them in the numbers and now they’re looking at this other style of tackling, which takes the head out of it, and it’s more of a wrap.”
Football players for years were taught to put their head across an opponent to make a tackle. A tackle with this style can cause helmet-to-helmet contact or helmet-to-knee if you go low. But rugby-style tackling teaches to use their shoulder to drive into a runner, while keeping your head on the near side of the opponent and out of the play.
Rugby players developed this style of tackling out of necessity. They don’t wear helmets, so they have to avoid big hits to the head.
So what if you took helmets out of football? Could it actually make the game safer? Many in the game admit they have thought of the possibility.
“I’ve said it a long time. Just take their facemasks off, or take their helmets off and you won’t have those collisions anymore,” said Griz head coach Bob Stitt. “It’s easy to say, but they still need the protection.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing the experiment,” said Johnson. “I don’t know who would lead that off, but I don’t think it would take anything away from the game at all.”
Realistically, such a drastic change would cause plenty of controversy and anger many who like the game the way it is.
When asked if he would want to watch football without pads, Hughes said, “Well, that’s rugby. Probably not.”
“If you change it, it’s going to lose popularity,” added Stitt. “There’s a reason people like the game. And some of the bigger hits are the ones that people like to see.”
So while the need to change the game continues to battle against the love of the game, like two linemen in the trenches, the future of football is at stake.