ORLANDO, Fla (AP) — When USA Football created a program to teach safe tackling to youngsters, it projected reaching a few hundred football organizations throughout the nation.
In one year, Heads Up Football was adopted by nearly 2,800 groups. As the second season of the educational program begins, there's no telling how widespread it will become.
The NFL has noticed, providing USA Football, the national governing body for the sport, with a five-year, $45 million grant. There are nearly 11,000 football leagues in the United States, and USA Football is hoping Heads Up Football someday becomes a teaching tool for all of them.
"Pioneering is exactly what it is turning out to be," former NFL running back Merril Hoge, now a member of USA Football's Board of Director, says of Heads Up Football, which teaches youngsters to take the head out of tackling. "Anytime you find you need to do something you haven't been doing because of a lack of information, you absolutely need to do something. We've done a lot of work and put in a lot of man-hours and have people involved who care about the kids."
Among those people is Gabe Infante, the head coach at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's Prep and a master trainer in the program. Infante clearly knows his football, having led the Hawks to the Pennsylvania AAA state title last season.
He was drawn to Heads Up Football because, for years, he's been searching for a teaching progression that made tackling safer. He likes the flexibility to scale down or ramp up the elements of the program to fit the audience, while still focusing on the key points of the techniques USA Football is emphasizing.
"It's really efficient and you can reinforce things. There's a way to measure the different aspects of tackling and then go back and work on that particular part of tackling, all the while stressing we are trying to make it safer," Infante says.
The key components of Heads Up Football are coaching education and certification; equipment fitting; concussion education and response; heat and hydration; the establishment of a player safety coach; and tackling with the head up and out of contact.
All of that makes perfect sense, yet there had been no formal program incorporating all of them.
Now there is, with the aim to spread Heads Up Football across the nation on the youth and high school levels. USA Football is in the process of hiring more master trainers, expecting to add between 50 and 70 to the first-year roster of about 30.