By Bill Bradley, contributing editor
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Taleen Carpenter raised her hands in triumph after successfully maneuvering through a gauntlet of tackling dummies manned by former Arizona Cardinals.
Minutes later, her friend Belinda Nelson was receiving high-fives after high-stepping through a ball-carrying drill in the Cardinals' practice bubble.
Their workout was the culmination of a Heads Up Football Moms Clinic at the Cardinals training facility in suburban Phoenix on Tuesday night. More than three dozen women attended the event, which was a USA Football-sponsored program that teaches moms about proper tackling techniques, concussion awareness and the importance of correct fitting for helmets and pads for their kids.
Both Carpenter and Nelson know about the Heads Up Football program first hand. Their husbands are coaches in the Empower Through Sports Youth Tackle Football League, a Heads Up-certified league in which both are Team Safety Moms.
"It's been very informative," said Carpenter of Gilbert, Ariz., who has two sons playing youth football. "I learned a lot from the concussion segment. My son actually had a concussion, the very first year he played tackle. The very first scrimmage, the ground caused a concussion and (the coaches and doctors) made him stay out for a week. I look back on it now and he should have stayed out two weeks.
"Our league has been part of Heads Up Football for a while now, so as part of our Team Mom training, we have to go through the (USA Football) training in order to be part of it. Part of our jobs as Team Moms is to pull kids when they seem questionable with injuries. And yes we do pull kids when it's questionable because we want them to be safe."
The event was run by former high school football coach Mo Streety, who coordinates the Cardinals' youth football program, and former NFL running back Damien Anderson, who is the team's alumni director. They were helped by former Cardinals players ranging from tight end Ben Patrick to defensive back Kwamie Lassiter as well as four current players.
They also were helped by offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Both Goodwin and Bowles told the moms about the importance of knowing their coach is certified to safely coach their kids.
"The biggest thing you want to do for your kid is making sure their coach is properly trained and is teaching the fundamentals of the game," Bowles said.
Streety has been involved in Heads Up Football since it was launched almost two years ago. The biggest change he has seen is safety education on all levels.
"If you've got the moms involved -- and they're often the decision-makers in what kids do -- then they can understand we're trying to make this a safer game," he said.
"That's the biggest thing is that player safety is now the buzz word.
"Now the coaches are more aware. The parents are paying attention. And especially the moms are paying attention (to safety)."
This wasn't the first moms clinic run by Anderson. He and former NFL kicker Luis Zendejas, who is the Cardinals' senior director for community relations, conducted a moms clinic in Guadalajara, Mexico, last week. That event attracted 143 moms.
"I always liken it to the Stone Age when I evolved from my experience as a player," said Anderson, who will run two more moms clinics with Zendejas in Hermosillo, Mexico, and Mexico City this spring. "It used to be the tougher you were, the better you were going to play. As I apply it to my son and the kids that I coach, it comes down to playing smarter, not harder.
"I just try to relate it all to education. If players come in educated and get confidence, you can avoid a lot of those injuries. Whether it's taking care of your body or proper nutrition or proper tackling, all that applies to how they play on the football field. I think if you have an educated player, the game's not only going to be elevated but you're also going avoid a lot of those risk factors that come with hydration and concussions."
Zendejas said he believes in giving the moms as much information as possible about the game. He sees Heads Up Football already making a difference.
"Anything you teach the kids, they're going to repeat," he said. "You just have to do it over and over and over.
"If you can teach the younger ones coming up, guess what they're going to do? It continues to grow from the younger kids up. And if you started at home with the moms and dads telling them the proper way to play, that's where it's going to change."
"I think this is good for mothers who interact with players who have actually been through what they're talking about," said Cooper, who was ineligible to play until the seventh grade because he said he was too big for his youth league's limitations. "I know my parents didn't really know what they were doing. They just kind of threw us out there because that's what (my brother and I) wanted to play.
"(USA Football is) definitely putting safety at the forefront. They used to say 'be tough and if you get hurt rub some dirt on it.' Now it's 'be smart and play hard,' but if you get hurt you should play with caution and play preventative, so we don't have to worry about those injuries that linger."
Dr. Javier Cardenas of the Barrow Neurological Institute talked to the moms about concussions, emphasizing the warning signs and recommended protocols for recovery. He explained the importance of the state's concussion law and how Barrow runs the state's concussion registry for high school athletes, known as Brainbook.
Chad Cook, a Cardinals athletic trainer, discussed the importance of proper hydration and how to monitor for heat exhaustion, an inherent issue in Arizona. He advised the moms to watch how NFL trainers are putting water in players' faces because they often don't think about hydration.
And assistant equipment manager Jeff Schwimmer and equipment intern Parker Brown showed the moms the proper way to fit a helmet and shoulder pads.
Then the moms got their chance to try on the protective equipment. Former Cardinals wide receiver Frank Sanders got involved in fitting the women in helmets and shoulder pads.
"Perfect!," he said. "Now you're all set to catch a ball."
By the end of the night, even Cooper was talking selfies with the moms. And the event had Nelson happy that her league is affiliated with Heads Up Football.
"From a coach's perspective, it's a completely different way to play the game," said Nelson of Mesa, Ariz. "From that standpoint, I'm confident we've selected a safe league."