Concussion fear forces changes to high school football practices

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2014 - 2:36 PM

Football practices will feature less contact as the state High School League changes its rules.

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At Lakeville North, any football drill contact is limited to the push/pull variety as evidenced by the drills between Ryan Bissonett (1) and Jeremy Ziemer (46).

Photo: Rich Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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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.”

Revisiting guidelines

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.”

Different approaches

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.

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