Concussions, football’s scourge from Pop Warner to the pros, have prompted changes to summer practices throughout Minnesota high schools.
Under a bylaw approved in May by the Minnesota State High School League Representative Assembly, football teams can conduct six contact practices during the combined months of June and July. Players must go through a four-day acclimatization process before participating in contact practices. And no practice can last no longer than 2½ hours, including time spent in meetings or watching film. The new rules take effect in 2015.
The high school league sought the changes in a state that it claims “has the most liberal rules in the country in regard to what is allowed” during summer football practices. Fewer contact practices, defined as those in which players wear full pads and block or tackle, means fewer repetitive hits to the head.
While no one doubts player safety is paramount, differences exist on methods for reducing contact above the shoulders and lessening brain injury risks. While free to conduct summer practices as they see fit, most teams already impose limits within the coming guidelines.
Players at two of the state’s top programs, Lakeville North and Totino-Grace, wear only helmets and shoulder pads. Contact practices are “thud tempo,” meaning players are engaging in close-range contact used to teach form blocking and tackling.
Both programs hold just one contact practice per week. But the new acclimatization process must be restarted if three consecutive days pass without contact. As a result, coaches at both programs are lamenting more time spent practicing just to maintain their normal workload.
Members of the Football Coaches Association are expected to push for changes to some aspects of the new rules.
“Any policy needs tweaking,” said Kevin Merkle, league associate director and head of the football task force. “You always need education and interpretation. But we don’t want them banging heads all the time.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations strengthened two rules designed to make football safer starting this fall. Penalties will be assessed for targeting as well as hits on a defenseless player. Targeting means taking aim or initiating contact above opponents’ shoulders. A defenseless player is one “who, because of his physical position and focus of concentration, is especially vulnerable to injury.
Summer practices are typically less violent than those in the regular season, with coaches especially mindful of not wanting to lose a player in practice.
Neither Totino-Grace coach Jeff Ferguson nor his Lakeville North counterpart Brian Vossen reported any injuries during summer workouts in helmets and shoulder pads.
“The state high school league has the best interests of student-athletes in mind,” said Ferguson, also the president of the football coaches association. “But as far as heat acclimatization, our climate is different from Florida or Texas. It would make us practice five more times.”
Merkle acknowledged the need to clarify the language in the acclimatization guidelines for teams that use helmets and shoulder pads.
At Minnetonka, players start the summer with two-a-day practices, for three consecutive days, in full pads. Coach Dave Nelson said adhering to a new acclimatization process would be “not that big of a deal. Most of our kids come into camp in shape but we’ll adjust.”
Peeling off his helmet and shoulder pads at midfield last week, Lakeville North senior linebacker Tristyn Hanson itched for more football. He wasn’t alone.
“We’re like, ‘Really? We’re done? It’s only been an hour,’ ” Hanson said.
Working together in pads each Wednesday, the Panthers enjoy a physical, hands-on approach to practice. They are allowed to hit, be hit and get the feel for their pads.
Lakeville North Brian Vossen called limiting the action to 60 minutes per week a “teaser to keep ’em hungry.”
Two of the state’s premiere programs, Eden Prairie and Wayzata, do much less. Eden Prairie wears helmets and shoulder pads for a July camp. Other than footballs, Wayzata issues no equipment until the official start of fall practice in August.
Summer, Wayzata coach Brad Anderson said, is for “teaching skills, techniques and schemes. It’s not good for high-level physical contact over long periods of time. You’re just going to set yourself up for injuries.”
Lakeville North senior defensive back Jordan Cardenas enjoys the excitement and energy of a more physical brand of practice.
“We’re not decking anyone but you need to know where to put your head when you tackle and what it feels like to get hit so that when you’re in the game it’s not a complete shock,” Cardenas said.
The last 15 minutes of the Panthers’ practice is reserved for inside run, which pits an 11-man offense against the defensive line and linebackers.
Clicks and clacks of pads become sharp cracks as the offense, sporting red jerseys, takes on black-clad defenders. Teammates end up on the ground, the result of physics and nothing personal. Caution rules. Linebackers are forbidden from barreling into fullbacks. Running backs refrain from lowering their heads.
The controlled chaos goes too far just once, as a defender dives for a fumbled ball.
“Stay up!” Vossen corrected. “We never dive in practice.”
Less stress on top athletes
Former Blaine football coach Shannon Gerrety, now the school’s activities director, voted against the summer football rules bylaw at April’s representative committee meeting. The bylaw passed 40-6 by a show of hands, with Gerrety the lone objector for the record.
“I’m not opposed to limits and I think most coaches are pretty intelligent,” Gerrety said. “But we haven’t heard from the coaches association to get their perspective or even a model.”
Brainerd coach Ron Stolski, executive director of the football coaches association, said his group “did instigate” discussion of summer football regulations about five years ago. The focus then was less about concussion concerns and more about preserving athletes’ free time. More recently the coaches association “had some input,” Stolski said, but “weren’t part of the final process.”
Six contact practices during the summer is “very reasonable” Stolski said. Players in Brainerd’s program meet a total of seven times for morning practices in helmets and shoulder pads. Some also participate in 7-on-7 passing leagues.
“Kids have a right to enjoy their summer,” Stolski said, adding, “We want to put less stress on the top athletes who might be playing baseball or summer basketball.”