BRATTLEBORO — Fall means football. As the 2016-17 school year begins, and teams start pre-season practice, concerns about sports injuries, particularly concussions, cast a shadow.
To address those concerns, the Vermont Principals' Association is requiring all Vermont high schools that field a football team to enroll in USA Football's High School Heads Up Football Program. This program teaches tackling and blocking techniques designed to reduce helmet contact; other components include concussion recognition and response, heat preparedness and hydration, and cardiac arrest awareness.
Every Vermont high school must designate one member of its football coaching staff as the Player Safety Coach. The PSC, after receiving training from USA Football, guides and directs the implementation of the program at the school, and leads trainings for the other coaches and the players.
Chad Pacheco, in his second year as varsity head football coach at Brattleboro Union High School, is the PSC for the Colonels.
"It's mandatory for every school in Vermont in 2016 to be certified in the Heads Up program," he said in a recent interview. "The PSC is responsible for teaching the other coaches about the Heads Up program and getting them involved. My priority is to make sure kids are taught properly how to tackle and block."
Pacheco received the Heads Up training this past spring in Rutland. The day, which ran from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., comprised a classroom portion, an on-field portion, and a second classroom portion.
In the classroom, "We learned all the techniques of teaching tackling and blocking correctly, by the standards of USA Football and the National Football League," Pacheco said. "Then we took the techniques we learned in the classroom out on the field, and in groups of three or four coaches, we practiced how to teach the techniques to others. The chief trainer walked around to look at what needed to be better or what language needed to be fixed so all of us were on the same page."
As of a couple of weeks ago, Pacheco has trained all BUHS football coaches and the eighth grade football coaches of Brattleboro Area Middle School's program.
"So we're USA Football-certified from eighth grade up," Pacheco said.
Players will be trained not only in Heads Up tackling and blocking, Pacheco said, but also in an emergency action plan.
"Groups of team members are developed to take care of specific tasks in the event of an emergency on the field," he said. "One group calls 911 and gives the exact street address; one group is assigned to open the gate and guide Rescue in; another group plus a coach and the trainer stay with the injured player. Another coach takes the rest of the players to another part of the field. We're going to practice the emergency action plan, so we're ready for any situation."
BUHS is fortunate, Pacheco said, to have an athletic trainer on staff.
"This person is in charge of every athlete in every sport and getting that athlete back to health," he said, adding that in the event an athlete experiences a concussion, the high school has a strict concussion protocol for evaluating the person's condition and eventual return — or not — to play.
In order to reduce the potential for concussions, guidelines limit the amount of time players experience contact.
"Our policy is the same as every school in Vermont, " Pacheco said. "Football players are allowed 90 minutes a week worth of full-go hitting, and I can break it up however I want, but I can never exceed 30 minutes a day. We can go full-contact or live-action or thud drills (running a play at half-speed but still hitting)."
Although concussions can happen in any sport, Pacheco said, noting youth soccer as an example, football has been in the spotlight for some time because of the controversy over the NFL's questionable reporting of concussion research. Pacheco is familiar with what he called the more recent "back and forth" about the effectiveness of the Heads Up Football program in reducing the rate of concussions among players.
"They're making an effort to improve the safety of the game," he said. "At least players are being taught a way to do it correctly. We have protocols now that have to be followed before guys go back on the field. When I played, we had nothing like this."
Pacheco said he has always loved the game of football. He played for BUHS all four years of high school — freshman, two years on junior varsity, and senior year (class of 2003) on varsity — as wide receiver and defensive back. He coaches out of that love.
Last year, his team had a 4 and 5 record and made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. The students are pretty good in the off-season, he said, about getting their bodies in shape and setting themselves up for a successful season.
"'Win the day' is our team motto," he said. "We're always looking to improve, on and off the field. Students on the team come to school to be students first. I like taking kids who are expected to be nobodies and turning them into somebodies."
At the opening player/parent meeting last fall, "I told my 12 seniors, 'You're all going to go to college,'" he said, "and now all but two are in college; of those two, one is already self-employed and the other is going in the Navy."
His biggest challenge as a coach is convincing kids, and their parents, that football is fun and safe, "a lot safer than when I played," he said, "and I played not too long ago.
"The game of football, more than any other game, teaches you about great values," Pacheco continued. "It teaches you toughness and how to come back. At some point in your life, you're going to face something hard to overcome. The game of football helps you learn how to handle those things."
Contact Nancy A. Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org.