Buddy Curry understands the problem. The former Atlanta Falcon linebacker played organized football at one level or another for 22 years. So the struggle to get young people to tackle with their shoulders instead of their faces isn't lost on him.
"We have to change a culture that's pretty much all we've ever known," said Curry, who'll oversee a free football clinic on Heads Up Tackling techniques for boys and girls ages 7-13 on Saturday morning from 8:30 to 11:30 at Finley Stadium.
"No more tackling with the head, no more leading with the helmet. We want them to 'Dip and Rip,' as we call it in our clinics. We don't want you to quit playing hard or aggressive. It's still football. It's still a physical game. But now we want you to lead with your shoulder when you go in to make a tackle."
The Kids and Pros clinic isn't just for kids. All local coaches at the youth through high school level are also strongly urged to attend.
"We really want all the youth coaches to come on the field and help us coach," Curry said. "This is as much for them as the kids. We want them to get comfortable with this form of tackling, too. Most of them have come up just the way I have, believing you lead into a tackle with your face up. I think it's as hard, if not harder, for the coaches to adjust than the players."
According to a White House press release last week, young people make nearly 250,000 emergency room visits each year with sport or recreation-related brain injuries.
In an effort to study the impact of those injuries and look for ways to make sports safer for our children, everyone from the U.S. Defense Department to the NCAA to the National Football League to the National Institute of Standards and Technology is pledging more than $70 million total dollars for various studies on head traumas.
"We've got to have better research, better data, better safety equipment, better protocols," President Barack Obama said last week. "We've got to have every parent and coach and teacher recognize the signs of concussions. And we need more athletes to understand how important it is to do what we can to prevent injuries and to admit them when they do happen.
"We have to change a culture that says you suck it up. Identifying a concussion and being able to self-diagnose that this is something that I need to take care of doesn't make you weak -- it means you're strong."
After playing eight seasons in the NFL, all with the Falcons, the 56-year-old Curry couldn't agree more with the President on that issue.
"We don't ever want to take the physicality out of football," he said. "We want kids to play with their mind, body and soul. But if you think you've suffered an injury, you need to report it -- especially a head injury. And we need to do a better job of having coaches understand the proper protocol to deal with a head injury."
This weekend's free clinic will address tackling technique, medical issues, sportsmanship and other issues. A second, more extensive clinic will take place in mid-July. Anyone interested in either event can register at www.kidsandpros.com. More than 100 young people have already signed up for the July clinic, which will be capped at 250.
And for anyone wondering why girls are encouraged to attend, Curry said, "Girls love football, too. And whether you're playing tackle or touch, proper techniques are vital. Beyond that, football is the ultimate team sport. No matter what version of the sport you play, the lessons of teamwork and sportsmanship are good for everyone to learn."
Curry knows that none of this is easy. Especially not with media outlets such as ESPN continuing to glorify head-rattling tackles. He spoke of a study that reported it takes at least 300 reps to unlearn a tackling technique such as leading with your face. If that's not a daunting enough challenge for players and coaches, that same study showed it takes 3,000 reps to automatically replace an old technique with a new one, such as leading with the shoulder.
"We're not going to change behavior in one or two clinics," he said. "But maybe we can at least show them what they need to work on."
As Obama addressed members of the media, the NCAA, the NFL and various other entities las week at the White House, he said of sports in this country, "For so many of our kids, sports aren't just something they do; they're part of their identity. They may be budding scientists or entrepreneurs or writers, but they're also strikers and linebackers and point guards. And that's a good thing. ... Sports teach us about teamwork and hard work and what it takes to succeed not just on the field but in life."
But playing sports the right way, especially overtly physical and violent sports such as football and ice hockey, is also hugely important.
Or as Curry observed, "The one thing that's tough to fix is your brain."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org