By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
WINSTON-SALEM–In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, 12 high schools offer football programs. Earlier this week, three people from each of those schools – the head football coach, the athletic director and a certified athletic trainer – spent the day at Reagan High School participating in a workshop designed to make sure that students are as safe as possible when playing football.
“’Better and safer.’ That is our catchphrase,” said E.Z. Smith III, the regional master trainer with Heads Up Football who was leading the workshop. “We are working to change the culture of football.”
Having everyone working together and learning the same approaches to safety serves students who play football and students who play other sports as well, said Stan Elrod, the school system’s athletic director for high school sports. “The No. 1 priority is the safety of the kids.”
“Safety is the major emphasis of everybody who coaches every sport, not football in particular,” said Mike Springston, the head football coach at Walkertown High School.
Such a workshop helps make sure that everyone is “on the same page with the nuances of the game,” Springston said. Later that day, he was going to meet for the first time with the members of his football team for the coming school year.
The Heads Up Football safety program was created by USA Football, the national governing body for amateur American football in the United States, with the support of the National Football League (NFL). Smith, who was the head coach of the football team at Concord High School for 29 years, became a certified trainer after he retired.
The program in Forsyth County was sponsored by the Matthew Gfeller Foundation. Gfeller was a student at R.J. Reynolds High School in 2008 when a severe helmet-to-helmet collision during his first varsity football game caused a brain injury that led to his death two days later.
The Heads Up Football program focuses on four areas: the safest techniques for tackling, which includes keeping the head up; wearing the right equipment and making sure that it fits properly; protecting players from concussions; dealing with heat and ensuring good hydration.
In creating the program, Smith said, Heads Up used research on concussions from the Centers for Disease Control.
“We are trying to use the scientific approach to make sure our kids are healthier and safer,” Smith said. “These folks will go back and train their staff in two-hour workshops.”
They will also hold safety clinics for players and their parents, Smith said. “The idea is to help moms and dads feel better about their coach being qualified and the player being safer.”
Smith spent the morning working with everyone in the classroom. After lunch, everyone headed to the field to make sure that they knew how to execute each of the moves properly. They practiced such skills as stance and tackling.
Football coaches said that, although they already knew most of the techniques for safe play, they had learned even more at the workshop. “Everybody should have gained some knowledge today,” said Adrian Snow, the head football coach at West Forsyth High School.
For the rest of the year, they will meet each other as competitors, Snow said. It was good to have a day working together as fellow educators. “We are all in education together,” he said.
Germane Crowell, the head football coach at Carver High School, said that, while reinforcing what they already knew and stressing the fundamentals, taking the workshop together helped “make sure we are all teaching the same thing.”
For Jennifer Smith, an athletic trainer at East Forsyth High School, some of the information, such as the proper way to tackle, was brand new. She was looking forward to going back to her school and teaching others what she had learned.
The workshop was valuable in other ways as well, she said. In the more than 3 years that she has been a certified athletic trainer with the school system, this was the first time that representatives from all the high schools with athletic programs had gotten together.
She also appreciated that the Heads Up program stressed the value of athletic trainers. “It’s not only one person, it’s the entire staff,” Jennifer Smith said.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools was the second school system in the state to participate in the program. Smith led a workshop at Wake County the week before, and he was scheduled to lead workshops in Pitt County and Southern Pines after leaving here. USA Football is a nonprofit organization based in Indianapolis, Ind.