High school football practice opened across the state on Monday morning, but Friday is the day most players and coaches point to as the real start of practice.
That’s the day players can strap on their shoulder pads and start hitting each other.
It’s a day often celebrated with something like the old Oklahoma Drill, where two players go head-to-head with the sole purpose of plowing over the other.
However, this could be the last year that the state’s high school coaches have complete freedom in determining how much full-contact practice their players are allowed to have.
While the NFL is facing a growing number of lawsuits regarding concussions — and college football is bracing for the same — high school football is trying to get ahead of the curve to best protect the players who need it the most.
The National Federation of State High School Associations has recognized the growing concern over concussions and head trauma and has made suggestions to all of its member associations — including the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association — for limits on the amount of full contact allowed in a week of practice.
Rather than waiting to have such rules handed down to them by outsiders, a group of coaches with the Oklahoma Football Coaches Association is working proactively to set its own potential guidelines for contact limits in practice, likely as early as the 2015 season.
The federation has suggested 60 to 90 minutes of contact practice over the span of two to three days per week, and Oklahoma’s coaches are looking to fit their limits within those parameters.
Kingfisher coach Jeff Myers was one of four high school coaches from across the country to take part in the federation’s concussion summit in Indianapolis over the summer. The four coaches were part of a 30-person panel that included doctors, scientists and other concussion specialists, who shared information about head trauma in football.
‘They’re trying to take small steps’
Football purists might look at the idea of limiting practice contact as an attack on the sport. But many coaches see the growing concern about concussions and understand their responsibility to protect their players.
They realize the increasing amount of information that is being discovered about head trauma in the game and can see contact limits as a minimal step that still protects the integrity of the game.
“There were a couple of people at the NFHS summit who, if it were up to them, would change the whole sport and basically make it flag football,” Myers said.
“But the experts who have been working with the NFL and the NCAA admit that the study of this is still in the juvenile stages. There’s a lot they don’t know, because the intense study of this didn’t really start that long ago.
“They don’t want to drop the hammer on the sport to make drastic changes that might not be necessary. They’re trying to take small steps.”
The Oklahoma Football Coaches Association is working closely with the OSSAA and its football advisory board to create a standard that would fit into the national federation’s guidelines and could be enacted as early as the 2015 season with the approval of the OSSAA board of directors.
The limits of 60 to 90 minutes of contact over two to three days aren’t viewed by many coaches as invasive on their current practice schedules.
“Good coaches already limit contact anyway, because we know we have to protect our players,” Purcell coach Greg Willis said.
“I think a lot of coaches are already close to falling into that 60- to 90-minute range. And there’s very little wide-open scrimmage football in a practice anymore.
“At Purcell, we are in what we call ‘half-shell,’ which means we’re not even in full pads, probably 90 percent of the time. So there’s not a lot of full contact; quick whistles to stop play, that sort of thing.”
The next conundrum is defining contact.
Last year, Texas high school football adopted contact limits of 90 minutes per week, defining contact as any to-the-ground tackling.
The national federation views contact as any collision of players in which there is no predetermined winner.
There are drills like team scrimmages and other to-the-ground tackling that obviously fall into the category of contact.
But for instance, a situation in which the defensive team is going against the scout team offense, the offensive player with the ball is giving himself up before being tackled — even if there is some contact in which the tackler wraps up the ball carrier but the defensive player stops his momentum before taking the other player to the ground — would be categorized as a non-contact situation with a predetermined winner.
The study and debate of concussions in football is at an all-time high. It was once a vastly underreported injury, but the dangers of concussions and head trauma are slowly coming to light.
A 2013 study by the Institute of Medicine found that high school football players suffered 11.2 concussions per 10,000 exposures to head contact.
There’s still no answer as to the best way to manage concussions, but progress in the research, understanding and protection methods are continually increasing.
States like Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and Texas already have instituted contact limits in practice through their state associations. California recently adopted state legislation to govern practices, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015.
A different type of concussion legislation, Senate Bill 1790, made its way to the Oklahoma House of Representatives last spring, calling for stricter and more specific guidelines for concussion management.
After passing through the senate, the bill failed in the house by a vote of 46-39, with opposition from some who thought such legislation might make Oklahoma a “nanny state.”
Lauren Long is an Oklahoma City native who co-founded Concussion Connection, a group dedicated to improving education, support and treatment of sports-related concussions. She helped prepare SB 1790, and has plans to rework the context of the bill before resubmitting it to the state congress.
In the meantime, Long is pleased that Oklahoma coaches are being proactive.
“It is encouraging to see individuals overseeing high school athletics in Oklahoma who want to make sure student-athletes are safe by limiting the exposure to unnecessary hits during practice, like the Oklahoma Drill,” Long said.
“Statistically speaking, concussions in football happen more during practice than they do during games.
“It is also vital that we try and protect the brains of these young student-athletes by limiting the exposure as best as we can. The brain of an adolescent is still developing, so why would we put it through contact drills that increase the risk of a brain injury?”
And as coaches take stock of the world around them, they know the microscope is becoming more strongly fixed on the protection of the athletes.
“The thing I would hate for us to do is turn a blind eye to it,” Myers said.
“We’re one of the top high school football states in the country. We don’t want to be one of the last states to implement something on this.
“I think we can come up with some common ground that the coaches are comfortable with, and the OSSAA is happy with what we’ve done. We want to protect the integrity of the game, and I think these limits will still do that, but our first job is to protect our kids.”