High school coaches trying to clean up illegal hits to head

But it's tough when young players learn from pros and NFL sends mixed messages about violence

Former Bears lineman Kurt Becker on why he coaches high school football at East Aurora.

Great concern abounds for the health and welfare of beloved NFL gladiators, whose quality of life may be compromised because of repeated concussions and other long-term injuries.

But what about the masses of young amateur football players across the country who take their cue on how to play the game from the pros?

The messages are mixed when the NFL professes ultimate concern for the safety of its players, yet fails to back it up with harsher penalties that would correspond with the seriousness of the matter.

Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather, a multiple repeat offender, had a two-game suspension reduced to one game after he twice launched himself to make helmet-to-helmet contact with a Bears receiver Sunday.

"I still want to punch him in his face … scumbag," Bears tight end Martellus Bennett said of Meriweather on his weekly appearance on WSCR-AM 670. "At the end of the day, the players have got to look out for the players."

High school football coaches are left with quite a dilemma when they advocate for the game they love while admonishing their players to dial down the savage aggression on the field.

"It is a tough sport for tough kids, and concussions are another inherent risk of the game," East Aurora coach Kurt Becker told me. "But what would those kids be doing from 3:30 to 6:30 every afternoon if they didn't come to football? Those risks might be greater, especially in East Aurora. When you try to weigh the options as a coach … we try to be the ambassador of the game … we want to promote the game in the safest way we can."

Redskins coach Mike Shanahan told reporters this week that he would like the NFL to take a tougher stance on helmet-to-helmet hits on kickoffs.

Shanahan is upset that one of his safeties, Reed Doughty, suffered a concussion during a Bears onside kick Sunday. Sherrick McManis drilled Doughty on the side of his helmet as Bears teammates scrambled for the football.

"That was one of the most vicious hits I've ever seen … at that speed at 10 yards and Reed just being completely helpless," Shanahan said. "That will be changed for the safety of the players. We all want players' safety first, but there's a lot that goes into it."

Doughty was the second Redskins player to suffer a concussion on a kickoff this season.

Former Bears receiver Glen Kozlowski remembers a more primitive era of full contact during summer training camps under coach Mike Ditka. He also recalls his days as a high school player in San Diego when stunning blows to the head that caused dizziness and blanking out simply meant a player got his "bell rung." He was expected to go back into the game when his head cleared.

"The game itself has changed some. It is not nearly as physical, which is good," said Kozlowski, now head coach at North Chicago High School.

Former Bears safety Todd Johnson, now head coach at Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., also has seen the changes in high school football.

"It's definitely hard because everybody my age (34) and older has been taught to separate the player from the ball and be as physical as possible," Johnson said. "And you really can't do that anymore. You have to use a little more finesse, go after the ball and be smart about it. We understand the seriousness of concussions."

Many high school coaches are determined to clean up their game, even if the NFL is loathe to take a more drastic approach to alter the violence in their product.

Becker, a former Bears lineman, was a strong proponent and leader in getting Illinois' youth concussion law passed and signed.

"We all knew that (concussions) were bad for us," Becker said of his playing days. "But we didn't know to what degree it was bad for us."

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter @kicker34

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