On recent cool autumn night, Roger Goodell walked from group to group on the artificial turf football field. Wearing sneakers and a dark grey pullover, the NFL commissioner watched as the coaches put their players through a series of drills that just could help save football.
The players weren't hard-hitting behemoths like Ray Lewis or James Harrison, though. Goodell traveled from New York to Centreville, Va., earlier this month to watch 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds play the game. Officials with the Fairfax County Youth Football League and USA Football walked the commissioner through the drills of the "Heads-Up Football" initiative, a program co-sponsored by the NFL and USA Football that emphasizes safer tackling techniques, concussion awareness and proper equipment.
The pilot program is in only three cities now — Centreville, Santa Monica, Calif., and Noblesville, Ind. — but the NFL hopes it will soon be adopted by many more.
Goodell's mere presence at a youth league practice in Virginia underscores the full scope of the NFL's concern about the future of the sport in the wake of the concussion scare and a series of incidents that have portrayed the game in an ugly, violent light. Not only has the NFL had to change its own rules and more firmly police its players, but to protect the future of the sport, Goodell has been forced to address the issue from the bottom up.
"It's important to teach the right fundamentals at the earliest ages," Goodell said. "That stays with them throughout their careers, whether it ends in the NFL or whether it ends in college or high school. It's important for what we do on the NFL level to do it right, to have the proper techniques."
As concussion awareness and football player safety have become buzz topics at the professional level, the impact is being felt at the youth levels, where the risks have become too perilous for many and most leagues are ramping up precautionary measures.