Robert Grace IV — RG4 for short — took the snap from center, faked left, veered right and outran the opposing defense 70 yards for a touchdown. Spectacular, yes, but not extraordinary.
Except that Grace, an eighth-grader at Blake who barely reaches triple figures on the bathroom scale, was less than two years removed from heart surgery. He’d developed quickly as a basketball player and even made the Blake varsity as a seventh-grader last season. But football, with so many concerns about safety, looked like it might be out of his reach forever.
“My mom didn’t want me to play,” RG4 said. “She was worried.”
Enter Fusion Football. Concerned over dwindling participation numbers and searching for ways to limit repeated contact, the members of the Independent Metro Athletic Conference (IMAC) took the trend toward flag football and modified it for middle-schoolers.
Players wear helmets and shoulder pads yet play in shorts. TackleBars, a locally devised system that uses neoprene-like bars velcroed to harnesses, replace traditional flags. Contact, such as blocking, is allowed, but not actual tackling. The game resembles football, but players rarely hit the turf and injuries are practically nil.
“I love it. It’s a lot of fun,” Grace said. “Once my mom saw it, she was fine with it.”
Ask Blake athletic director Nick Rathmann about Fusion Football and you’ll get a 10-minute treatise on its virtues. Rathmann and the rest of the IMAC administrators and coaches believe they have hit on a way to revive football interest.
“Kids weren’t coming out for football,” Rathmann said. “The last year we had varsity football, we had 14 kids out.”
Blake entered a cooperative with Minnehaha Academy, St. Paul Academy, Mounds Park Academy and Hope Academy to form the SMB Wolfpack, which is in its second year and has been a tremendous success. Still, the challenge of getting kids interested in playing remained. The IMAC, whose members are private schools that offer K-12 curriculum, made a bold move last spring by removing tackle football before the varsity level. Fifth- and sixth-graders play flag football, seventh- and eighth-graders play Fusion.
“There’s no reason why a kid has to play tackle before ninth grade,” said Providence Academy Fusion coach Tim Healy, who played football at St. John’s University. “We don’t do hitting drills or tackling. We go to ‘thud,’ where you contact and then stop. Hey, it worked for [former St. John’s coach John] Gagliardi.”
The emphasis is on fundamentals. Kids are trained to proper way to block and the right way to tackle. The latter is helped by the TackleBars, which were created by local product developer Jeremy Ling, himself a former football player at Mounds View.
Each player wears a three-bar harness, with two bars in back and one in front. The ball carrier is ruled down when a bar is ripped off.
“In flag football, the flags are in the wrong spot to teach good tackling technique,” Ling said. “We wanted to create something to encourage a kid to use proper technique.”
When play began in the eight-team league (IMAC members Blake, Breck, Minnehaha, Providence and SPA plus Brooklyn Center, New Life Academy and St. Agnes), even players were skeptical and took a wait-and-see approach. That, said RG4, has been replaced by enthusiasm.
“We had a school cookout during our first game and everybody got to see it,” he said. “After that, a bunch of kids wanted to come out.”
There are still some kinks to be worked out, but so far, so good. RG4’s father, Robert Grace III, said he thinks Fusion Football came along at the right time for his son. “I think it’s perfect,” said the elder Grace, a former Blake basketball coach. “He can learn to enjoy the game and not worry about getting hurt.”
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Following Blake’s 19-6 victory over Providence, RG4 admitted to his first injury of the season, pointing to a cut on his leg.
“I cleated myself,” he said through a sheepish smile. “Other than that, I feel great.”