Heads Up Tour Extra: Texas youth league changes with USA program

Christine Detz, NFL Media Associate Producer

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As the thermometer hovered near triple digits, dozens of youth football players hit the field in this Dallas/Fort Worth suburb for conditioning practice earlier this month. It was the first step in a long march toward what the Arlington Thunder hope will be a third Pop Warner national title.

The key to a successful team is its ability to make adjustments, and one change the Thunder coaching staff made during the offseason was getting certified with the Heads Up Football program.

"We went through a clinic and took some online courses," said athletic director Philip Butticarlo, whose program was the focus of the first stop in NFL Media's Heads Up Football Across America tour on Monday. "USA Football also sent a representative here to teach us how to break down the tackling drills for the players."

The Heads Up tour continues through Friday, when it ends in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame festivities.

As for the Thunder, coach Levi Park said Heads Up Football was a great learning experience.

"I learned a lot of things I can implement that will be different than the traditional techniques, but probably more effective," he added.

Nine-year-old Myles Hill, who is new to the Arlington Thunder organization, believes these new tackling techniques will help him adjust to a new game.

"The last two years I've been playing flag football, so it's an upgrade for me," Hill said. "The coaches are very helpful and some of the older teammates are helping me, too."

With high temperatures and humidity typical in July in the Metroplex, coaches and parents are especially aware of proper hydration, one of the five pillars of the Heads Up Football program.

"We start talking about hydration well before we ever hit the practice field," Arlington Thunder player safety coach Noni Ahlfinger said. "We try to teach our parents and/or kids that they need to be drinking water all day long."

She and the rest of the coaching staff watch for signs of heat illness among the 5-12-year-old players and are prepared to pull a player at the first indication of trouble.

So why would a program that has seen success on a national level -- nine trips to the national tournament in the last 10 years -- be interested in signing on to Heads Up Football? The coaches and parents think the Heads Up techniques will add to their success.

"If my kids are safer, they're taking less time off the field and I have a stronger team," coach Tony Munoz said. "Going into the playoffs and national championships, I need those kids healthy to be able to compete at that level. This program is going to help us do that."

For now, the Thunder players are just excited for the beginning of another football season.

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