By Joe Frollo, Special for NFL Evolution
Friday nights in the fall are appointment viewing in many communities across the United States.
The high school football stadium serves as a meeting ground for old friends to reconnect and young athletes to kick off the weekend for America's favorite sport.
And while time seems to stop during those 48 minutes of exhilaration each week, the game continues to evolve for everyone involved.
Players still play. Coaches still coach. Parents still cheer. But as their knowledge of the sport grows, so too does their understanding of health and safety standards within it.
Nearly 2,800 youth leagues signed up for USA Football's Heads Up Football® program last year, and 35 high schools across the country piloted the program at that level, taking a comprehensive approach to educating their parents, players and coaches on proper equipment fitting, concussion awareness, heat and hydration preparedness and Heads Up Tackling techniques.
As preseason camps draw near, more than 600 high schools already have chosen to become part of Heads Up Football for 2014, showing a commitment to their athletes' well-being.
"It's lived up to what we thought it would and what it would bring to our program," Philadelphia St. Joseph's Prep head football coach Gabe Infante, whose program adopted Heads Up Football in 2013 and won the Pennsylvania Class 4A state championship, told USA Football. "Certainly it has made us safer in the lessening of the frequency of concussions that we suffer from tackling, and I think it made us a better tackling football team.
"Any time you are able to provide a concrete and systematic approach to any fundamental that you are teaching, that gives the athlete confidence to what you're teaching. The way the system is built and the way we teach it and reinforce it develops confidence that what we are teaching is the right way to do things. And a more confident player is a better player."
Like the sport itself, Heads Up Football is about adjustments. Led by Senior Director of Football Development Nick Inzerello, USA Football's staff examined the program's offerings at the high school level and modified it accordingly.
"High school coaches play a critical role to enhance the overall health of our game. We've created a version of Heads Up Football that is consistent with the needs to provide a better, safer game," Inzerello said. "The program is new, and so we're constantly identifying improvements by listening to the high school coaches so that we can provide the right set of resources that add value to the program."
USA Football recently sat down with Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools head coaches and administrators to discuss how the program can be strengthened. All 25 Fairfax County Schools incorporated Heads Up Football into their programs in 2013.
"The thing that draws a lot of people to Heads Up Football is that it was an organized way of teaching," Herndon (Va.) High School head coach Jeremiah Davis said. "It unifies the terminology. As a head coach, when I bring new people on staff, being able to teach people how to teach is a great resource."
Davis said as players enter their second and third years with Heads Up Football, skills will continue to improve. Because the program also is taught at the Fairfax County youth level, young players benefit from a consistent technique and education curriculum.
"Our freshmen team had the best defensive unit of all three levels because they didn't have the bad habits that our seniors and juniors already had," Davis said. "They only knew how to tackle by buzzing their feet and shooting their hips.
"We incorporated it into our practice plans and tackle circuits. We stuck to it and saw results, especially at the younger level."
USA Football has shown it is committed to annually evaluating and improving Heads Up Football, said Bill Curran, Fairfax County's director of student activities and athletics. Educators know that as new information becomes available, lesson plans get updated.
For example, Heads Up Football includes increased education on heat preparedness and hydration in 2014 and plans are already in place to include sudden cardiac arrest and Heads Up Blocking in 2015.
"Heads Up Football is a strong program," Curran said. "It's what we really need here on the ground, and we think as more school districts see what it offers, others will see its worth as well."