Pop Warner: Safety a top priority for local Pop Warner programs
By Michael Bower
Parents have always wrestled with the decision of letting their child play for the local Pop Warner team.
But with all the media attention football-related concussions are receiving nowadays, the decision is tougher than ever before.
“I had to sell my wife on the idea, but that was why I did all the research and I purchased my own helmet for my son,” said 33-year-old Lee Bridges, who is in his first year on the Poway Pop Warner board of directors. His 9-year-old son is entering his second year of Pop Warner at the tackle level. “I assured my wife this is the best I can get for our son.”
And now Pop Warner, the largest and oldest national youth football organization, is doing some assuring to worried parents all over the country by becoming the first nationwide league at any level of football to restrict the amount of contact players experience during practice.
New rules limit contact drills to one-third of practice time, and ban full-speed, head-on blocking or tackling drills in which the players line up more than 3 yards apart. It is a rule that longtime Poway Pop Warner coach Len Wall says is long overdue.
“I am all for it,” said Wall, who is entering his 35th year as a Pop Warner coach. “I know Pop Warner clinics have emphasized the new rules over the years, but just not every coach has implemented it or followed it. It is good to make it a rule so nobody is confused.”
Both Poway and Rancho Bernardo Pop Warner continue to take steps to ensure the safety of its players. Poway just purchased 140 new helmets from Xenith, which are designed to be even safer than older helmets.
Both leagues certify all of their helmets each year, rather than the enforced rule of every two years. But even the safest helmets are not concussion proof.
“The helmets are great and new and that is fine,” Poway Pop Warner President Ron Schrader said, “but I think it is more the instruction to the coaches and getting them on the right page.”
Both Schrader and Rancho Bernardo Pop Warner President Al Stein agree that teaching proper tackling technique is the key to limiting injuries.
Coaches from both organizations will go through several clinics on safety and teaching proper technique before the start of Pop Warner practice on Aug. 1.
“The Palomar Conference puts on a mandatory coaching clinic each year and we have had doctors in for the last three or four years talking about concussions,” Schrader said. “Coaches also have to take and pass an online certification test this year.”
Wall points out that Pop Warner coaches often have to overcome the poor tackling methods youngsters see on TV by college and NFL stars.
“I always tell my players not to take what you see in many college or NFL games as an example of how you should tackle, because those guys are large or fast or both and incredibly quick,” Wall said.
“They are getting paid a great deal of money and they are getting it done, not necessarily all the time, but often the wrong way. So many kids watch and buy the videos of the 50 greatest tackles, but they are not great tackles. They are the hardest hits and not the correct method of tackling.”
Stein and Schrader said concussions have not been an issue in their organizations. Both have also said the number of kids playing in their respective organizations have not decreased much, if at all, despite all the media attention to football-related head injuries.
“We are down slightly from last year, but I think that is more the economy than parents worried about safety,” Stein said.
The amount of media attention given to head injuries related to football increased when former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau was found dead in his Oceanside home on May 2, due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
Seau’s family recently donated some of his brain tissue for research, as people are questioning whether or not Seau sustained brain damage during his career.
“I think what you’re seeing is a lot of the pros are getting concussions and it has been on ESPN a lot so it is a trickle-down effect,” Schrader said. “The big focus is from the NFL down.”
And the hope could be that by Pop Warner focusing on teaching proper tackling techniques, it will trickle back up to the NFL level in the future.
“I think they are hoping that kids will take the right techniques with them as they progress to the higher levels,” Wall said. “No helmet can be perfect. They have never invented one and never will; but we have gotten better at teaching tackling.”
No question it takes a lot of time and money to ensure the safety of the kids playing in local Pop Warner programs, but it will always be a top priority.
“We are doing our best and we are taking the kids’ safety into account,” Schrader said. “If every kid starts getting concussions, we will not have any Pop Warner here.”
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