Written by SportsDayDFW.com
Avoiding serious neck injuries: 'Head-up' tackling a constant emphasis for Dallas-area football players, coaches
Gerald Jones understands all too well the need to emphasize proper tackling technique during football practice.
The Pinkston coach has seen two players suffer spinal cord injuries as a result of helmet-to-helmet collisions that left both paralyzed.
The first was Pinkston safety Jared Williams, who was hit in the neck by a North Dallas player’s helmet in 2009. The second was Molina quarterback Diondre Preston, who was involved in a helmet-to-helmet hit during a game against Pinkston in 2010.
“We’ve always made sure that we taught techniques the way they’re supposed to be taught,” Jones said. “When that happens to you, it just really kind of puts an asterisk there. You want to make sure you really, really emphasize it as best you can. Just to make sure you really take a close look at what’s going on with the kids.”
A scary weekend of football put neck and spinal cord injuries back into the spotlight.
Two college football players were carted off the field Saturday after fierce helmet-to-helmet collisions.
Tulane safety Devon Walker broke his neck after a head-first collision with a teammate. He had surgery Sunday, and his prognosis remains uncertain.
Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel, a former Mansfield Legacy standout, was taken away in an ambulance after a similar collision. Mitchel told Legacy coach Chris Melson on Sunday that he had a concussion but was otherwise OK.
Proper tackling technique remains the key to preventing serious neck and spinal cord injuries, and area high school coaches are stressing the importance of seeing what you hit.
“Every time we see a kid duck his head, we stop it, correct it and tell him to keep his head up,” Melson said. “That’s the No. 1 thing we teach is to keep your head up and eyes up.”
Plano East coach Johnny Ringo provides visual reminders to his team. Laminated posters of proper tackling technique — head and eyes up — hang around the locker room.
Rate of injuries down
The frightening weekend notwithstanding, research shows neck and spinal cord injuries have been significantly reduced since 1976, when rule changes eliminated the head and face as primary contact areas for tackling and blocking.
Dr. Frederick Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, said as much in his annual report of catastrophic injuries in football.
His research, funded in part by the National Federation of State High School Associations, reveals there were 8.9 catastrophic cervical cord injuries per year at the high school level from 1977 to 1990. The rate was down to 6.6 per year from 1991 to 2011.
There were six cervical cord injuries to high school athletes last year and none to college players, but the rate of incidence per 100,000 participants has routinely been higher at the college level.
“This kind of injury doesn’t happen that often,” said Mike Carroll, head athletic trainer at Stephenville and a member of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, “but you have to be prepared to deal with it when it does. It’s critical that there’s trained medical personnel to ensure the best long-term result.”
Carroll, who often serves on NATA committees, was part of a task force that helped shape the UIL’s preseason practice guidelines regarding heat acclimatization.
Carroll said every Class 5A and 4A school in Texas has a full-time athletic trainer on campus or at games. But only 65 percent of Class 3A schools have an athletic trainer present, and the number continues to decline at each smaller classification.
If a school can afford football, Carroll said, it had better figure out a way to afford an athletic trainer.
“Once you’ve got a cervical cord injury,” Carroll said, “if anything is done incorrectly, then you run the risk of an athlete either being a permanent quadriplegic or worse — dead.”
Carroll said a significant portion of an athletic trainer’s education is devoted to spine injuries and their prevention.
UIL officials are ramping up their efforts to penalize illegal hits, particularly those with the intent to punish a player with the crown of the helmet.
Cooper Castleberry, a veteran college official and the UIL football rules interpreter, said there has been a “very high emphasis” on these hits for the last several years.
If an official is ever not sure whether an illegal hit has occurred, Castleberry encourages calling the penalty.
“You can look at a hold and say it didn’t affect the play and pass on that,” said Castleberry, who has been officiating college football since 1994. “You can’t do that on a targeting foul. You can get somebody injured for life with something like that. If there’s any doubt in your mind, then go for it. That’s the attitude refs need to have.”
Officials can call fouls when they see them, but they can’t prevent injuries, Castleberry said. Before they can throw a flag, the damage is already done.
“The prevention part has got to be taught,” he said. “Players have got to be taught how to do what they’re out there to do.”
Even if coaches are doing their part to emphasize proper form, players will still get injured.
Five months before Williams’ injury in 2009, DeSoto defensive back Corey Borner was paralyzed during a spring practice. He dived to make a tackle and his head crashed into a wide receiver’s stomach.
“There’s always a way to get better,” DeSoto coach Claude Mathis said. “But I’ve played that moment over and over and over and over again in my head and asked what I did wrong. I think, in the end, it was meant to be. It was just a bad deal.”
Mathis said DeSoto dedicates a segment of practice to tackling drills. With coaches, trainers and officials concerned about helmet-to-helmet hits and concussions, proper tackling technique is now stressed more than at any point over the last few decades, Mathis said.
Plano East senior safety Zack Mueller said he’s been taught since third grade to keep his head up and wrap up the ball carrier. He’s diligent about tackling properly, but he knows sometimes he falls short of good form.
“You’re not thinking of it when the play is happening,” Mueller said. “After the play you’ll realize it and think, ‘Shoot, I could have wrapped him up better.’ There’s at least one time a game that you’ll not have great form.”
Mueller’s research shows that the majority of catastrophic spinal cord injuries occur during games, and defensive players are typically at the highest risk.
Jones said he and the Pinkston coaching staff study new techniques at every opportunity. They go to coaching clinics and camps to learn from professional- and college-level coaches about proper tackling.
“Football is a great game,” Jones said. “I love the game, and if the technique is right, it’s a safe game. But there are still going to be times where you’ll have an injury or two.”
Staff writers Matt Wixon, Corbett Smith and Michael Florek contributed to this report.
Catastrophic injuries in youth, high school, college and professional football from 1977 to 2011. Catastrophic injuries are defined as football injuries that resulted in brain or spinal cord injury or skull or spine fracture. All cases involved some disability at the time of the injury.
Blocking on kick
Blocking on kickoff
Contact after interception
Drill hit indoor wall
Hitting tacklematic machine
Tackled on kickoff
Tackling head down
Tackling on kickoff
Tackling on punt
Source: Annual Survey of Catastrophic Football Injuries
FOR VIDEO demonstrating proper tackling technique, go to SportsDayHS.com.