By Courtney Conover, Special to USA Football.
If I had a dime for every time I was asked the following question, I'd have enough in cash to fly our family first class to Bora Bora and stay there:
"Are you letting Scotty play football?"
When your husband spent most of his life playing football – and nearly seven years as an offensive lineman in the NFL, it's the No. 1 thing people ask, followed closely by "You must be rich. … Aren't you rich?"
And while the answer to the second question is "no" – we are fortunate but far from rich – my reply to the first question is a resounding "yes." I am letting our son play football.
My decision, though, is steeped in irony. My mother-in-law did not allow my husband to play football until he was in the eighth grade, which, by most accounts, is woefully late for a boy who would go on to play at the professional level. Her reasoning was simple: She didn't want her son to get hurt. And now, as a mother of a son, I totally get where my mother-in-law was coming from.
Most recently, football has become the poster child of sorts for concussions, but that's only one concern that has plagued the game for years. It's no secret that the old gladiator-style of playing the game – which includes body-jolting moves that fans have in some way come to expect – is detrimental to grown men let alone young children. My husband has regaled me with numerous tales of coaches from his youth who advised him to "stick your head in there" or "bite the ball."
Sound dangerous? It is.
Both of those terms are basically code for keep your head down and, consequently, in the most vulnerable position.
The game-changer in all of this is a program called Heads Up Football.
Supported by the NFL and NCAA and endorsed by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the National PTA and Pop Warner Little Scholars, USA Football's Heads Up Football is a program that aims to help make the game better and safer for youth. The program educates coaches, league administrators and even parents on how to fit equipment, understand concussion awareness and teach tackling with players keeping their heads and eyes up. The course even advises coaches on how to get players acclimated to their climate so that athletes don't fall prey to heat and dehydration.
Heads Up Football's approach to achieving all of the above is simple: USA Football established standards by which a person becomes certified to coach. A total of 78 master trainers, comprised of the nation's top high school football coaches, college coaches and former NFL players, have been trained by USA Football to create a new standard in football by preparing Player Safety Coaches to implement the Heads Up Football program within their organizations. (Instruction includes Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concussion recognition and response protocols and proper helmet and shoulder pad fitting.) The program also boasts former NFL players who serve as Heads Up Football Ambassadors – my husband, Scott, is an ambassador for the state of Michigan – who support coaches while helping parents and players understand the importance of implementing sound fundamentals at an early age.
But to me, the most impressive aspect of Heads Up Football is its understanding that parental involvement is vital to making this all work. The program offers free courses to help parents, players and league administrators understand the principles of Heads Up Football, including one-day events within its Protection Tour held at NFL and college football training facilities for youth football players and parents to learn Heads Up Football curriculum. (To learn whether the youth football leagues in your area are in compliance with the standards of Heads Up Football, click here.) USA Football expects Heads Up Football to reach 5,500 youth organizations and cover 900,000 players and 150,000 coaches in the 2014 season.
Here's the thing. I know I can't protect Scotty from everything in this world, but if I entrust his well-being to a youth football league – or any extracurricular activity for that matter – I expect that the organization and the coach leading it will also place the utmost value on his safety.
If you ask my husband, he'll tell you that the game of football has enriched his life in more ways than he can count, and I want nothing more than to give our son an opportunity to experience the same life lessons – just not at the expense of his health.
The presence of Heads Up Football assures my husband and me that Scotty will indeed get that chance.
Editor's note: this article originally appeared on The Brown Girl with Long Hair blog. Courtney Conover is a mom of two and the wife of former Detroit Lions offensive lineman and current Heads Up Ambassador Scott Conover. She has more Legos and NFL memorabilia lying around her home than she knows what to do with. She is also a certified yoga instructor and a contributing writer to the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series. She blogs at The Brown Girl with Long Hair