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Appreciating physicality of game is different than loving violence

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Two days before a flurry of helmet-to-helmet hits resulted in players getting concussed and later fined by the NFL, I sat in a high school stadium and bristled at the absence of facemask-bending hits that would leave someone's mother in tears.

Sounds jacked up right?

I was but one of dozens in that blood-thirsty choir.

It gets worse. I was watching a high-school game in suburban Atlanta stacked with players whom I coached in youth league, mentor off the field and whose parents I'm dear friends with. One of the players is my son.

For years, I have been among several youth league coaches teaching proper blocking and tackling technique, but also teaching intimidation and retribution. Don't worry, I'm qualified.

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I had heard only a few good pops from the field, and I was surprised, especially since so many of my guys had gotten so big, and some of them are being looked at to play at the next level.

Get him before he gets you. If he gets you, you get him back. Send a message. If he comes back for more, then that guy's a player. If he doesn't, then you've done your job. It was how I was taught and how those who taught me were taught.

You don't want any? There's always soccer.

I guarantee you on this day, at parks, high schools, colleges and on NFL practice fields, some player is being told to "bow up," coach-speak for bow your neck. Brace for -- or deliver -- a crushing blow, making some part of someone's body start to quake.

I'm sure the violent shots Atlanta's Dunta Robinson and Pittsburgh's James Harrison delivered to draw $125,000 worth of fines were delivered based on how they believe the game should be played. They certainly heard the same stuff I did, and that I've passed down to so many others.

Robinson is still woozy from the blow he put on Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, who sustained a severe concussion. Harrison said he's contemplating retirement after being fined after a massive shot to Cleveland wide receiver Mohammed Massaquoi. (A helmet-to-helmet collision with Josh Cribbs wasn't deemed to be illegal, but it was no less devastating.) Harrison said he doesn't want to change the reckless style that has made him one of the game's best and most-respected players.

Contemplating retirement is about as far as he'll go -- he was back at practice Thursday -- and frankly he needs to refocus his gaze.

Suppose he left Massaquoi or Cribbs paralyzed or unable to live a normal life? I bet he'd feel a lot worse and would be far more serious about retirement. As much as I wanted to see some serious thumping last Friday, I would have been mortified to see one of these kids carted off the field on a stretcher with his head immobilized.

It's actually something of a miracle that as big and fast and strong as players are -- even at the youth-league level -- we haven't had more instances like that of Darryl Stingley, the late Patriots wide receiver who was paralyzed after a hit by Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum.

That tells me that even though players have been coached to seek out and punish, they've also been taught good judgment, and rules about head and neck shots have been working. We don't see many blatant spearing tackles, with players diving into piles or into prone players with the crowns of their helmets.

This past weekend in the NFL was a perfect storm of helmet shots that brought a very serious issue to a head. Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, who was fined for a head-to-head shot on Ravens tight end Todd Heap, was apologetic, because he knew he was wrong. He knew. Players know.

They'll know a lot better now, because of the fines and threatened suspensions and a new safety video that teams have been mandated to show players regarding illegal head and neck shots. That's a good step by the NFL.

As much as Harrison and some other players are upset about the NFL's aggressive stance, they need to understand that the steps are being taken so they can have their sensibilities when they're done playing and be able to watch and coach their kids -- the right way.

It's hard for them to understand right now, but they will.

At the same time, few players would trade the risk of being concussed for what might come down the line. Do you think DeSean Jackson is going to stop playing if he's medically able to continue? Players know the risks.

On the other end, as much as players have been taught to level anything in the other uniform -- I'm not just talking about defensive guys; we've seen some pretty dangerous peel-back blocks -- they haven't been trained to launch themselves into somebody's chin when that player is not looking.

That's an individual choice, and that's why the crackdown is in effect.

But that crackdown has to trickle down to people like me and so many other fathers and coaches who want to see their kids make the glorious hit and be known as a tough guy.

I can't tell you how many times I've tried to motivate kids to be more physical by showing them footage of Ronnie Lott and Mike Singletary and Steve Atwater, only to have them try and tell me Sheldon Brown's hit on Reggie Bush puts them all to shame. Lott, Singletary, Atwater, Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, Kevin Greene: The baddest hitters in the NFL weren't dirty, but a lot of their hits could be considered borderline suspension-worthy based on today's rules.

The game has evolved, for sure, and so have its rules. Our perceptions as fans have changed, too, but perhaps not enough. We still love the big hit. We glorify it.

The NFL is doing the right thing by issuing video of proper and improper hits. In some form or fashion, every level of football needs to have this video example, so everyone can see that the chest and thighs are bigger targets, and hitting with the crown of the helmet can be far more disastrous for the person doing it than the recipient. Enforcement of the rules needs to be in accordance with the awareness and instruction of them.

There's nothing wrong with coaching punishment. This is a tough sport, and you're either cut out for it, or you're not. This Friday night, when I'm sitting in the bleachers again, I hope not to be bristling about the lack of physicality again. I want to see guys mark their turf and defend it -- and be proud about it.

I also want to see them do it the right way.

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