Players suing NFL seek to become safety ambassadors
Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY Sports posted May 8, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS – Court suits continue between the NFL and more than 4,000 former players who allege that for decades the league hid the dangers of concussions. But some players in those suits also have joined an NFL-backed initiative to make the game safer for kids.
USA Football, a national youth organization supported by the NFL, brought more than 50 ex-players here Wednesday to train them as “ambassadors” for its expanding Heads Up safety program. Many are former players who are plaintiffs in the suits that also allege the NFL failed to warn them about potential long-term effects of concussions such as depression and dementia.
“This is not about the lawsuits, is it? … It’s about concussions. The NFL is trying to prevent concussions. Lawsuits are not the bottom line in this. … This is for the youth,” said Erik Williams, a former Pro Bowl offensive tackle with the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens (1991-2001), who is both a Heads Up ambassadors and a plaintiff.
“They (the suits and Heads Up) are not mutually exclusive. They’re both a driver of change,” said Isaiah Kacyvenski, who said he had seven diagnosed concussions during his career as a linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders (2000-2007).
Kacyvenski said he joined the suits and Heads Up to help preserve the game. “It’s a great game, but there’s a safer way to play it,” he said.
Scott Hallenbeck, executive director of USA Football, said the former players were selected in collaboration with the NFL and that the suits were not a factor.
“We focus solely on their commitment to giving back to the game and supporting our effort to establish a safer game,” Hallenbeck said at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, as the former players went through training.
USA Football provided a list of the 54 ex-players here. Twenty-two of those names appear on the Washington Times database of former players involved in the suits.
Tony Casillas, an NFL defensive tackle from 1986-1997 with the Atlanta Falcons, Cowboys and New York Jets, is another ambassador and a plaintiff in the suits. “That (the legal case) obviously doesn’t have anything to do with this,” said Casillas.
The ex-players will be compensated for their Heads Up participation. USA Football receives financial and promotional support from the NFL via the National Football League Foundation, the league’s philanthropic arm.
Last year, USA Football conducted pilot programs in three youth football leagues in Virginia, Indiana and California. Each league was provided with a “safety coach” to oversee Heads Up, which is anchored to teaching tackling that uses the shoulder pads – not the helmet – to make a tackle.
This year, USA Football says the program will be expanded to about 1,250 leagues in all 50 states involving about 261,000 players and 37,500 coaches. Organizations are eligible if all their coaches (including assistants) go through a USA Football online coaching certification at a cost of $5 per coach per year, according to USA Football.
One hundred of the leagues will be involved in another pilot program this year that will include an injury study. Each of those leagues will be assigned a former NFL player as its ambassador, who will take part in preseason safety clinics for coaches, parents and players.
Geoff Meyer, president is president/founder of The Chicagoland Youth Football League (TCYFL). He said its 36 member communities and over 400 teams will participate in Heads Up this year.
Meyer said last year “with all the fears out there about concussions,” his league’s player participation numbers dropped about 9%. His league joined Heads Up in February. “Now it’s picking back up (in signups),” he said.
Andy Ryland, USA Football’s manager of football development, gave the ex-players demonstration of the Heads Up tackling technique. He stressed that it’s important to teach the proper technique before putting players in full-speed drills.
Ahman Green, former NFL running back with the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans (1998-2009), said he’s a stickler for proper techniques. “I want to fix the wrong teachings of the past. I had great coaches coming up … but every kid doesn’t have my experience,” said Green, also is suing the league.
Former running back Merril Hoge and former linebacker LaVar Arrington aren’t suing. They, too, will be ambassadors.
Hoge’s career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears was cut short by two concussions sustained in span of five weeks in 1994. He’s on the USA Football board of directors and helped start Heads Up.
“Those kids that are going to be starting this program, they’re going to come back and pass it on,” said Hoge, now an ESPN personality. “Once it comes full circle… it will be standard operation for them. It’s how they were taught.”
Arrington, a linebacker with the Washington Redskins and New York Giants (2000-2006), said: “I want to make a difference. … This is our pride and our passion to be part of a game that we love. And the game needs us. … Now, we have an opportunity to come together through this initiative that USA Football has put together … to make a difference.”