Wiedmer: 'Heads Up' helpful as 'one wrong turn' can end a career

Wiedmer: 'Heads Up' helpful as 'one wrong turn' can end a career

June 2nd, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Lorenzo Evans stood on the fringe of McCallie School's football field, watching his five sons participate in the "Heads Up" football clinic Saturday afternoon.

A football fanatic whose own career ended in middle school, Evans hopes the playing days of Dejeon (13), Lorenzo Jr. (12), Lanarius (9), Romeo (7) and Malachi (6) will last much longer.

But mostly he wants them to be safe, which is why he brought them to the three-hour clinic run by former NFL stars and area high school coaches that his kids might learn the proper way to tackle, recognize concussions and be good teammates.

"You hit one wrong turn and that could be your football career, even at this age," said Evans, whose sons are known also as the rap group Da Young Millionaires.

"We've all seen it. Some guys end up in wheelchairs. Some pass on over one hit. I try to tell them to be careful, to play the right way, but these coaches might say something I wouldn't know to say, or they might say it better. Another set of eyes is always a good thing."

There were 100 pairs of eyes ranging in age from 7 to 14 atop McCallie's plastic grass, all of them trained on former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry, former Falcons running back Gerald Riggs, former Red Bank High and Middle Tennessee great Reggie Upshaw Sr. and a host of area high school coaches, including McCallie's Ralph Potter and much of his staff.

The proper way to tackle took up the first hour. After that coaches from Brown Middle, Dalewood, East Lake Middle, Baylor, McCallie, Gordon Lee and Boyd-Buchanan worked on a variety of skills from throwing technique for quarterbacks to proper footwork for linemen.

And that wasn't all they worked on.

Said Upshaw, whose son Reggie Jr. will play basketball at Middle Tennessee this year after graduating from Baylor last month: "You've got to set yourself up with a great education. That must come first."

It certainly all seemed to resonate with 12-year-old Brown Middle School student Kelunta Watkins, who said, "We learned a lot about perseverance and teamwork. They also really helped me on my footwork and how to tackle better."

Added 12-year-old Paul Edge: "They talked a lot about sportsmanship and how you have to work hard all the time."

To show how difficult the task of teaching young players not to lead with their facemasks can be, one area youth league coach said, "That's football. That's what fans want to see. You're not going to get away from that."

But that doesn't mean concerned coaches, teachers and youth leaders aren't going to continue to try.

Or as the YMCA's Joe Smith -- whose organization helped sponsor the clinic along with Curry's Kids and Pros NFL-sponsored group -- noted: "We're just trying to teach them to take the head out of play."

The perception persists among many coaches, fans and players that helmet-to-helmet or helmet-to-chest hits are indeed what the public wants to see, that the game's popularity would suffer without such vicious collisions.

To quote LSU and former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis: "We want them to know we were there."

But Potter also rightly insists that "you can also do that with a good form tackle."

Moreover, both players would still remember such a play 25 years later.

This isn't to say football isn't or shouldn't be a violent game. But let's say Tennessee went 14-0 this season and won the national championship without delivering a single head-jarring, highlight-reel tackle the entire schedule. Nothing but no-gain-after-contact tackles. Do you think a single Volniac would walk around complaining, "Yeah, we won it all, but we didn't knock anybody's head off the whole season"?

And if they did, wouldn't they need their heads examined?

No one completely reverses behavior in a day. For that reason, Curry, Riggs and fellow former Falcons William Andrews, Bobby Butler and Chuck Smith are expected to return for a four-day camp July 15-18 at Finley Stadium. UT-Chattanooga coaches also will work the event.

"We did a lot of football stuff today, but we also talked about life," Curry said. "When we come back in July we'll be with them long enough that they'll hopefully be able to see a real difference in their football skills by the end of the week."

But on Saturday at McCallie, the football stuff was pretty much confined to one main topic.

"Safety," Potter said, "is something that we're all very concerned aboul."

At least they should be.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com