Like many young football players, Byron McDaniel was taught to take advantage of his helmet while tackling. So he often led with his head when making a hit, using his facemask to try to jar the ball loose from opponents.
The result was some jarring collisions, with McDaniel saying he sustained a concussion when he was 9 or 10 years old. The Heights High School linebacker said he suffered another one early last season.
Later last season, Bulldogs coach Stephen Dixon began teaching a new way to tackle. He instructed his players to lead with their shoulders and keep their heads behind or to the side of opposing ball carriers, then wrap their arms around the opponents’ legs and roll until they fall to the ground.
“Safety-wise, it’s better,” said McDaniel, a 16-year-old junior who hasn’t had any more concussions. “I feel like it takes out a lot of head-to-head trauma.”
That’s the idea behind a rugby-style tackle, or hawk tackle, which has become increasingly prevalent in Texas high school football. More and more players are learning the technique because coaches all over the state are now required to do the same.
A joint initiative by the Texas High School Coaches Association (THSCA) and University Interscholastic League (UIL), which governs public-school athletic competition in the state, mandated that all public high school and middle school football coaches be certified in rugby-style tackling by Aug. 1. The in-person and online training program is conducted by Seattle-based Atavus Sports, which was enlisted because of its work with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks as well as prominent college programs such as Ohio State and Washington.
The first statewide program of its kind in the United States, Texas’ tackling certification program aims to reduce head and neck injuries. It’s also in response to growing concerns about the long-term health risks associated with playing football as well as declining participation in the sport across the nation, including in Texas.
“The problem that we’re having is there’s so many kids that are avoiding the sport now, because of the fear,” Scarborough High School coach Gary Howard said.
According to statistics compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of kids playing high school football has gradually dwindled during the last decade. Data from the UIL, obtained through an open records request, shows that head injuries in football have increased in number and proportion during the same time frame.
When the first tackling training sessions were held last summer at the THSCA convention in San Antonio, then-executive director D.W. Rutledge said the initiative aimed to “save the game.”
“It’s under attack,” he added, “and some changes need to be made.”
Dixon and Howard, along with first-year Lutheran High North coach Shaun Stephens, said altering the way players tackle is good for them and the sustainability of the sport. Private-school coaches are not required to receive the same training – even public-school coaches are not required to implement it – but Stephens teaches the technique anyway.
All three coaches, along with a sampling of Heights and Lutheran High North players, agreed that a rugby-style tackle is safer in terms of preventing head injuries. But is it more effective?
McDaniel and Tim Lavallais, a senior linebacker for the Bulldogs, said the technique works well when approaching an opponent from the side or behind. In straight-on situations, though, they said it is harder to wrap up and more difficult to keep their head out of the tackle.
“It was 50-50,” Lavallais said of implementing the technique last season. “I missed some and then I made some.”
UIL spokesperson Kate Hector said the organization has gotten “good feedback” from coaches about the training program. She also said it’s too early to know whether the initiative has had an impact on reducing head injuries.
Atavus cannot point to studies or medical data to support the notion its way is safer. The 7-year-old company uses game film to measure head contacts for its clients and strives to reduce them. Atavus also tracks the efficiency and effectiveness of its method, claiming it leads to more successful tackling.
The company hopes to parlay its partnership with Texas into arrangements with other state high school associations.
“We hope it’s a catalyst,” Atavus CEO Karen Bryant said at last year’s THSCA convention. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about our joint desire to create a movement across the sport.”
McDaniel said there are inherent dangers associated with playing football, including concussions, and they cannot be completely eliminated. But he appreciates the effort to reduce them, saying the implementation of a safer tackling technique could prolong careers such as his and reduce the likelihood of cognitive problems later in life.
Will Harris, a senior wide receiver for Lutheran High North, said football players weren’t concerned with such things as recently as a generation ago. Some might say the game is getting soft, but Harris sees the adaptation as smart.
“If you want to save the excitement of the game and stop as many injuries, then definitely I think you incorporate hawk tackling and shoulder tackling,” he said. “It’s not that much of a difference. If you’re athletic enough, you’ll make the tackle. You don’t need to use your head at all.”