RICHMOND, Va. -- Since the beginning of July, 11 high school football players have died across the country. Seven of them died due to what is called "football trauma", usually a head injury of some sort. Teams across the country are using unusual sources and methods to help make their players and their sport safer.
At football practice at Trinity Episcopal high, Michael Sacks stands out. The 6-foot-4 defensive lineman has the perfect surname for his sport. Sacks moved to Richmond last August from Johannesburg, South Africa where he played rugby for several years. The way he began tackling his new teammates caught everyone's attention.
"Rugby is more about trying to get your head on the right side of the tackle and protecting yourself more than trying to hit the guy as hard as you could" Sacks said. His style personified what head coach Sam Mickens and his staff had already been trying to teach the other Titans. Mickens found a video on YouTube produced by the Seattle Seahawks, that demostrated how to properly use rugby style tackling to help cut down on head injuries. Having a live teacher right on his own field was an even bigger help, even though it was difficult at first for his new teammates to learn a new style of tackling.
"A lot of the stuff was habit, the way they've done it their whole life" Sacks explained. "It's a little bit different than what I've done my whole life. But everyone has adapted really well."
"Luckily, he's an aggressive, big, strong, athletic kid" Mickens said. "It was easy for him to come out and tackle some of the kids and show the other kids how it's done."
Sacks demonstrated on a fellow teammate and describes the technique this way: "Put your right foot in, hit him in the hips...wrap your arms..and then drive through and take him to the ground."
Mickens notes a noticeable decrease in head injuries this year on his team. But while the new technique is a step in the right direction, to really make an impact requires a change in instinct as well as instruction. NFL hall of famer and Richmond native Willie Lanier has served on the NFL's player safety advisory panel since it's inception nearly 5 years ago. He would like to see players taught at the beginning of their involvement with the game to focus on making better and safer decisions about tackling and contact while playing.
"You cannot be taught to drive with your head in a down position" Lanier said. "You can only drive with your head up and what you see. It's the same thing. That's where it needs to be, at the lowest level, constantly talked about. If it's not talked about at a moment of decision, which is constantly happening, someone might make the wrong choice."
Regardless of where and when it's taught, safety is becoming as much a priority in the game as conditioning and memorizing plays.
"We're doing everything we can on the lower levels to ensure the game is going to be around in 50 years" Mickens said. There are currently a handful of teams in the Richmond area teaching this technique to their players with the hopes that many more will follow suit in the near future.