By The Associated Press
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Four dozen women snap selfies in the New York Giants locker room. They examine the pros' helmets and shoulder pads, then head to the field house to do drills.
The women all are football moms, and they're learning about tackling techniques, hydration, training and equipment care, all designed to keep their sons playing the game safely.
The clinics are part of an initiative by the NFL and USA Football, which governs the sport, to demonstrate the benefits of the Heads Up Football program. They could soon become a regular part of the calendar. The Falcons and Vikings also have held events this month, the Cardinals will do so in July, and 10 other teams are planning such sessions.
The idea is simple: making parents feel secure about their children playing the sport.
"Football has become the poster child for concussions," says Chris Golic, whose husband, Mike, played eight seasons in the NFL as a defensive lineman, and whose two sons played at Notre Dame. "But it's a sport that gives a family so much, and has given my family so much. We want to reach out and say that the sky is not falling, that there are changes happening to make the game safer."
That's being done in a hands-on way for the mothers. They break a sweat as they learn the five positions in Heads Up Football that keep the head and neck out of tackling: the breakdown; the buzz; the hit; the shoot; and the rip.
While the drills are accompanied early on by lots of chatter and laughs, the women get serious once USA Football master trainer Vince Digaetano, an assistant coach at SUNY Maritime in New York, orders them into action. Explaining is one thing, Digaetano says, but actually performing the drills pays off far more.
"I felt silly at first, like a kid learning," said Dori Toth of Metuchen, N.J., "but at the same time, I felt I was getting it. I understand why they do it step by step. I like doing it like that."
Another mom, Dena Muller of New York, was so reluctant to allow her son, Gus Muamba, to play football that it took more than two years before she signed him up for the Harlem Jets. Muller now echoes the message Chris Golic presents to parents who have doubts about football -- or any sport, for that matter: "You can't protect your kids from everything in life, but you can try to keep them safe in everything they do, and keep supporting them in chasing their dream."
Muamba's dream has been to play for his local league, and his mom says the opportunity has done wonders for her son healthwise, socially and in the classroom.
"I finally signed him up, still reluctant," she said of Gus, now 12. "And it was amazing to see the change in my son -- although after two weeks, he almost wanted to quit because he had never worked so hard. I told him, 'No way. You chose to do this.'
"He lost 12 pounds in the first few weeks of conditioning, and got into very good shape. There is such an issue with weight among young people in America, and this was great to see.
"It was football two hours a day, three times a week. It was really valuable. He had an outlet for all his physical energy. He'd had a problem focusing in school, but after he began football, his teachers asked me: 'What's up with Gus, he seems so focused on his work now?'
Heads Up Football was developed by USA Football in 2012 and launched nationwide last year. It has had almost instant success, and USA Football expects it to reach 5,500 youth organizations, covering 900,000 players and 150,000 coaches, in the 2014 season. That's more than half the youth groups overseeing local football in America.
There were 30 master trainers at the outset; now there are 78 who teach the tenets of Heads Up Football, with more being hired. In turn, youth leagues have player safety coaches who are trained by USA Football's instructors, and those coaches ensure compliance with safety protocols, coach certification, and the conducting of safety clinics for other coaches, parents and players.
The initiative has been endorsed by such groups as the National Athletic Trainers' Association, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the National PTA, Pop Warner Little Scholars, the National Federation of State High School Associations, several college conferences, and the NFL.
Last month, the Wake County, North Carolina, public school system adopted Heads Up Football for 31 middle schools and 21 high schools.
Digaetano calls the parents the "stakeholders" in Heads Up Football.
"This goes way beyond the football on the field," he said. "It's a multifaceted program that they are seeing up close: equipment fitting, heat and hydration, concussion awareness and care, the proper way to tackle. It's about changing the culture of the game in a proper way to make it safer at various levels."
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press