August 20, 2019


Virtual reality and robotic tackling dummies -- how Dartmouth is shaping the future of football: Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens hopes his vision for football, including using this virtual reality headset, will trickle up to coaches like Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban and down to youth leagues everywhere. (Hallie Grossman, 8/15/19, ESPN)

What football might be -- what the future of this game might look like one day soon; what it might have to look like -- could be shaped here, in this tiny hamlet, at this Ivy League institution, with this non-tackling, woman-hiring, next-big-idea-having troupe of insurgents.

"Either we change the way we coach the game or we're not gonna have a game to coach," says Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens. Mike Janes/Four Seam Images/AP
Just about eight years ago, in the spring of 2011, Buddy Teevens walked into his team meeting room and announced, without so much as poll-testing it with his staff, that Dartmouth players would no longer tackle one another in practice.

One assistant coach thought Teevens was kidding. Another seemed unable to process what he had done in life to deserve such a fate. "God, this is idiotic," the assistant told Teevens. "We're all going to get fired."

Teevens weathered his staff's righteous outrage:

How will these guys know how to tackle safely!? Answer: He wasn't abandoning practicing the fundamentals. He just didn't want players practicing those fundamentals on one another.

How will these guys know how to tackle well come game time!? Truth: That much was a little more wait-and-see.

How will, how will, how will!?

Their protests, however, weren't as loud as the clash of helmets from the collision that took place a few months before this meeting, in the middle of a blitz drill. One young running back vs. one prized linebacker. One play, two concussions.

Teevens knew he couldn't make football risk-free. But he also knew the most pernicious damage wasn't always suffered via one devastating in-game blow but from repeated knocks, the onslaught of subconcussive hits suffered again and again in practice. He ran the rough math in his head. If he did away with player-on-player tackling in practice, if there were 1,000, 2,000 or 8,000 fewer hits over the course of a career, wouldn't that help? Wasn't that a start?

Nearly a decade later, Teevens laughs at the coach he was, cowed by what he had set in motion. ("Well, s---," he remembers thinking before the first game that season. "Hope this works.") Settling back into a black wooden chair in his office, he concedes he knew how most folks felt about him, and his plan. "I was the village idiot," he says.

He didn't have to do all this. But he was scared for the sport then, like he's scared for it now. He's alarmed enough that he repeats himself again and again, his worry spilling out like a prayer.

Don't live under a rock. Look at the science. Have you seen the science? CTE is real. Concussion science is real. Have you seen the science? Do you live under a rock?

"Either we change the way we coach the game," he says, "or we're not gonna have a game to coach."

Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the organization he co-founded to research CTE and concussions, wishes more coaches saw Teevens' urgency. Nowinski wants to transition all youth to flag football until high school because minimizing exposure to subconcussive hits is the "No. 1 thing we can do to help football players." And because he thinks Teevens is exactly right: If coaches don't change the game, the game will change on them.

The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that boys' participation in 11-player football fell 6.5 percent from 2007 to 2017, dropping from 1.11 million to 1.04 million -- even while the total population of boys participating in sports overall rose 4.4 percent. That still leaves more than 1 million high school football players in the United States. Football isn't dead in this country. It isn't even on life support. But the warning signs are there, and Nowinski thinks there's a way forward. "Buddy Teevens is showing that you can restrict tackling to an extreme place and succeed on the field," he says.

Indeed, in Year 1 post-tackling, Teevens says, the team's overall injury rate fell 80 percent. By Year 2, the concussion rate had plummeted 58 percent. And the Big Green's football? It was just fine. Their missed tackles were cut in half, and since 2014, Dartmouth has won 76 percent of its games -- the Ivy League's best clip and proof that the elimination of tackling in practice did not metastasize into endemic losing.

That, in the end, won Teevens' guys over. Five or six years passed, with no tackling and plenty of winning, before his players and staff truly bought in. Even now, freshmen walk onto Memorial Field desperate to impress their new coaches, so they'll do what impressed their old coaches. They'll wallop a teammate.

How many times did the Dartmouth staff rail against Nigel Alexander? The senior linebacker lost count.

"Oh, man," he says, conjuring up his troublemaking days. "Three? Four, five, six?"

He's standing in the end zone of Memorial Field, eyeing a new generation of young players. Some of these high schoolers might wind up at Dartmouth. They might get tossed from practice because they're still learning to rewire their football muscle memory. Don't tackle, don't tackle, don't tackle.

They'll come around. Jalen Mackie moved all the way from Miami to play linebacker in Hanover. He was a freshman last year when he collided with a teammate in practice.

"Hey, man," another teammate jumped in. "We don't do that around here."

In spring 2013, Teevens stood in his office and gazed out the window, with a researcher friend from Dartmouth's engineering school by his side. The players already hadn't been tackling one another for a few seasons by that point, but the team was still perfecting a practice regimen without live tackling. The staff installed 10-minute tackling circuits, the players hunting down pop-up dummies and half-moon dummies. They chased after and tackled a device that looked like a snowman as coaches pulled it on a rope, doing their best to make that snowman simulate an opponent on the move.

"Wouldn't it be neat," Teevens began, "if we could make one of those move?" He waved to a tackling dummy on the field below.

"You know, Buddy," said John Currier, the researcher friend, "I think we can."

Posted by at August 20, 2019 12:13 AM