Nick Inzerello was the third person hired at USA Football 11 years ago. He is now the director of football development for USA Football and is spearheading the latest sign-up campaign for Heads Up Football.
Inzerello previously worked a season in the Buffalo Bills front office before spending three years with the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo. He said his love of amateur sports and a unique challenge led him to Indianapolis and the chance to work for the governing body of amateur football.
Inzerello talked with NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley this week about what working for USA Football means to him, the Heads Up Football program sign-ups and expansion of its safety programs as it grows.
How would you describe your job as director of football development with USA Football?
I have a great job. I have a great opportunity and a responsibility to collaborate with our staff here, with our football experts and medical experts to create programs and resources such as Heads Up Football. That ultimately creates a better, safer game for millions of youngsters across this country who are playing this great game.
You've seen USA Football grow incredibly in the past two years with the introduction of the Heads Up Football program. What has that been like for someone who has been with USA Football since 2003?
It's been humbling. All the great work that's been done by a lot of people during the last 10-plus years, it is paying dividends. We really started to understand the sport of youth football in the early years, the needs and the challenges that football was facing. Ultimately it allowed us to create a strategy for how to make this game better. Personally, it's been a really neat experience to be a part of the team to see the work is paying off. So now you're seeing youth organizations looking to USA Football for leadership, for guidance. In implementing programs (we've helped) to educate coaches, making sure there are standards in place for how we create a better safer experience for kids.
I'm grateful that I bring that to my workplace every day. I think it's also a testament to the support we've gotten and the guidance we've gotten from the NFL and college conferences now as well as our work with the National Federation of State High School Associations. We're really seeing a collaborative effort at all levels of football to make the game safer and to make this game better. We want more kids playing this great game and receiving the great benefits this sport gives us to live more productive lives and to make our communities that much greater every day.
Speaking of Heads Up Football, you're in the middle of sign-up period nationally. What does that mean for you?
Right now we have regional managers who are actively meeting with youth football commissioners and creating more awareness for the Heads Up Football program. What we're seeing is the youth football community taking a leadership position to say, "We need standards for how we educate our coaches and making sure that we're communicating with our parents." (That includes) telling them that this is how we're educating our coaches. This is the measures we're taking to ensure that parents have a better understanding of signs and symptoms of concussions; to make sure they understand what a properly fitted helmet and shoulder pads look like; showing our parents how we're teaching your coaches how to demonstrate the fundamentals of tackling and making sure that the head is up; and ultimately to make sure we're talking through heat emergency preparedness and acclimatization. That makes sure that the principles of player safety are rooted in our organization. We're seeing that not just in youth football but that coaches are saying, "I have a better understanding now for how to teach the proper fundamentals of tackling. And USA Football and its fundamentals are positioning me better as a coach to ensure a better experience for my kids."
It's the sign-up season for leagues to join the Heads Up Football program. How is the drive going so far?
We're most pleased. It really started in 2014 with our national conference (in February) where we brought in youth organizations around the country to educate them on the Heads Up Football program. We have a tremendous amount of support. We've been expanding the program, starting from about 2,800, we expect that number to grow significantly.
What is the biggest goal of USA Football during the sign-up period?
We want to make sure we are communicating and educating the organizations on what they're signing up for. It's all about quality control. We want to make sure that each organization ... and their coaches will be trained and certified, that they're going to nominate the right player-safety coach -- who is an individual responsible for implementing the program -- and they're going to be trained by our Master Trainers and they're going to take the program back and ensure the program is being conducted the right way. We really want to educate those (league) commissioners as part of that process. Ultimately, we want all 10,000 youth football organizations at one point to be Heads Up Football programs.
The biggest endorsement of Heads Up Football seems to be from the National Federation of State High School Associations. How has that helped sign-ups among high schools?
We're excited about high schools because the high school football coach is one of the most important influencers in the football community. A high school coach is an individual that the youth programs look up to. High school coaches have responded by saying, "We need to improve. We need to make sure our coaches at the high school level are getting educated as well." What we're thrilled about is the high school community in conjunction with our partner the NFHS are stepping up to say, "Hey, we want to be a Heads Up Football school. We want to make sure all of our coaches are trained and certified." If the high schools are doing it, that's a great example for the youth programs in their community to emulate.
Also, there's continuity. When you think about a family that has a youngster playing youth football age 10 or 12, then that same family has a high school player. They're being taught in a consistent manner on tackling fundamentals and similar terminology and there's a process to ensure the proper fundamentals are being taught. If we have that continuity, that's only going to mean great things for the kids that are playing. The high school programs certainly play a great role in that.
How important are the Master Trainers who work with leagues to train the player-safety coaches?
The Master Trainers are a key part of the Heads Up Football program. Heads Up Football is centered around a train-the-trainer model. That is, those player-safety coaches that come to be trained on how to implement the program properly, it makes it key to have top-notch Master Trainers throughout the country. We are working to build an infrastructure where we will be able to train these player-safety coaches year in and year out. It's an annual requirement that these player-safety coaches come back and be retrained. Because we're changing the culture in football and that's a positive step forward for the long-term growth of the game.
With Heads Up Football expected to double in number of sanctioned leagues, has USA Football expanded the number of Master Trainers to facilitate more player-safety coaches?
This year we will increase the number of Master Trainers from 30 to approximately 80 in advance of our player-safety coach clinics this season. Our player-safety coach clinics will run from April through end of July in order to prepare them to do their jobs ... and implement the program properly. We're seeing tremendous growth not just with the number of leagues registering. In order to keep up with the demands of the program growing rapidly, we're continuing to increase our capacity to educate and ensure quality control.
Many parents, especially moms, have said the best part of Heads Up Football is the coaching certification. What feedback are you getting in that area of the program?
Very, very positive. Now youth organizations and commissioners have a standard that they can use to say, "If you want to coach in our organization, you've got to complete USA Football's nationally accredited Level I coach certification course." By doing that, we now have a mechanism to ensure the coaches are trained and certified. And we can track that to ensure that the coach has completed that online certification. For parents to know that their coach has been trained and certified, that ultimately makes them feel a lot more comfortable to know that their coach has a clear understanding of their goals, their responsibilities and they ensure that their youngsters have a better, safer experience.
What's the most gratifying part of the Heads Up Football program for you?
I think it's that we're changing the culture of the sport. We're improving the sport every day. What's gratifying to me is to see the (youth league) commissioners, coaches and individuals out there in the field who just want to provide a positive experience for kids. They're responding to USA Football and the Heads Up Football program to say "This is needed. We care about our sport. We want to see our sport grow. And these are measures we are taking to ensure a better, safer game for our kids." That's what's gratifying for me is to be a part of that and to be part of a great team here every day that works on ensuring the program is working properly and ultimately we're making an impact through Heads Up Football."