On a hot practice field at the Hale Football Center in Piscataway, New Jersey, Chris Ash rolls a large rubber ring across the FieldTurf. A member of the Rutgers defense runs forward, low-slung, helmet glinting in the sun, and hits it with his right shoulder.
The head coach picks up the ring, barks advice, then rolls it again. The player runs low and hits with the left, head tucked to the side, legs driving through the tackle. A rugby tackle, in other words, carried out over and again next to a glistening scarlet endzone
“This game is under attack,” Ash says later, sitting in the shade of the stadium on the last day of summer, fall and football looming. “We want it to be a safer game, we want it to be a game that’s around for a long time, we want it to be a game that parents feel safe about their sons playing.
“It’s our job to make that happen. If there are safer ways to coach and teach and improve the game, then that’s our obligation.”
Hence the ring, and hence Rutgers’ work with, and Ash’s seat on the advisory board of, Atavus, a Seattle-based company that wants to improve safety in football tackling via the introduction of rugby techniques.
Football – pro, college, high-school, Pop Warner – has a serious problem with head injuries. Suicides among former pros – Dave Duerson, Junior Seau – have shone a brutal light on a sport built on collision, much of it head-to-head and head-to-body. Hollywood made a conspiracy thriller. In real life, the NFL reached a $1bn, 65-year settlement with affected ex-players. There have been deaths in high-school games.
Ash, a defensive specialist, is in the first year of a contracted five at Rutgers, a deal worth $11m guaranteed. He previously worked at Drake, San Diego State, Iowa State, Wisconsin and Arkansas and for his new team’s opponents on Saturday, Ohio State. Two years ago, while with the Buckeyes, he saw a YouTube video in which Pete Carroll explained why his Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks ,inspired by rugby and working with Atavus, were seeking to take the head out of the tackle.
“My son found it.” Ash says, “It wasn’t me that was looking for something. But I studied it over and over and over. It was thought-provoking, it made me listen to the coaching points [Carroll] was making about how they tackle and why they tackle, so I went on a couple of months’ research project, re-evaluating what we taught and what was actually showing up on game film.
“I was teaching tackling a certain way, the way that most coaches have been taught themselves, but as I studied game film from everywhere that I’d been … I couldn’t find it on film. So I said, ‘There’s something really wrong here. Either we’re really bad coaches or our players are resistant to what we’re coaching them to do, because it’s not there.’”
Traditional football tackling, head across the body and “bite the ball”, was not just dangerous. It didn’t really work and the players seemed to know it.
At Ohio State, Ash said, this “caused us to basically self-evaluate, to make what was happening on film happen on the practice field. And what we found was … players were doing rugby-style tackling on the game field. We felt it was a more effective way to tackle, it was a safer way to tackle and it’s what our players did naturally anyway.”
Game film is Ash’s lodestar. Watch the game film, study the game film, show the game film. At practice, three cameras watch from cranes as the defense runs against the offense of the next foe. That’s two and a half hours’ more film to analyse and, where tackling is involved, to send for analysis by Atavus.
On the sideline, as linemen the size of Alps amble past, Ron Lloyd shows me the other way of tackling, the football way. Basically, he headbutts me – gently – in the kidneys. I imagine such contact at full speed, the incoming head rattling in a shell of Riddell plastic.
Lloyd has a business background and missionary zeal. A high-school coach, he is ever-ready with an anecdote about his own days as a quarterback, a spiral pass with a spare ball, a stat or a fact on the game. He’s also president of football for Atavus.Full Story