A New Challenge
At the 2017 USA Football National Conference, retired U.S. Army general and former Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno took the stage to kick off the event as the new chairman of the national governing body for amateur football.
He spoke about the values he learned as a young football player in Rockaway, N.J. and as a tight end for the United States Military Academy at West Point—values like perseverance, teamwork, resilience and strength—that USA Football promotes in communities nationwide. That foundation helped him throughout his military career.
"I owe a lot to this game," he said. "Football developed in me the characteristics and the fortitude that I needed. But just as important, it gave me an opportunity I never would have had, to attend the United States Military Academy."
That's what we do, we provide young men and women opportunity," he said. "It's my opinion that football has played a critical role in developing our youth for over a century in this country."
Odierno also issued a challenge to a record number of attendees—more than one thousand high school athletic directors, administrators, football leaders and coaches.
"I challenge everyone here to be part of a new wave of encouraging and talking about football, and what it brings to the local community and what it means to our nation—a smarter, safer game with the same competitive spirit which we have come to love about this game," he said.
See highlights of Ray Odierno's speech here.
Empowering Youth Coaches
Youth and high school coaches were invited to the fourth annual conference—held in Orlando during the NFL's Pro Bowl Week for the first time—to help take their coaching to the next level. This year, beyond in-game strategies, the conference was designed to empower coaches and other youth football leaders as they implement top safety recommendations for their teams and programs.
"It's you—the coaches—you're the heartbeat of football," said Scott Hallenbeck USA Football's CEO and Executive Director. "Only you can say, 'I've committed myself to continuing my professional development, to learn the latest safety measures, to teach your child the incredible values this game offers.'"
See highlights of Scott Hallenbeck's speech here.
Sessions at the National Conference covered a wide range of health and safety topics, from proper tackling to nutrition.
"There was such energy during the breakout sessions," said Roman Oben, the NFL's Senior Director of Youth and High School Football. The NFL collaborated with USA Football on this year's programming and featured speakers.
"We talked about a safer game during the conference," he said, "and a variety of other things—like developing quarterbacks, to connecting with millennials, to how to lead young men in 2017."
Oben spoke with many participants who said the conference helped them learn to do their jobs better. "We're all trying to bring the best educational tools, the best resources and the best practices to a wider group of people," he said.
"The Athletic Field is a Wonderful Classroom"
As head football coach and English teacher at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Chuck Kyle has spent 34 years teaching life lessons on and off the field.
"I have always believed that the athletic field is a wonderful classroom," he said.
The National High School Hall of Fame coach has led the St. Ignatius football team to 321 wins and 11 state titles.
Kyle is also a Master Trainer for USA Football. In that role, he teaches seminars on proper and safer football techniques for fellow coaches at events like the National Conference.
Learn more about USA Football's Master Trainer program here.
"Football is being taught and played differently than even 10, 12 years ago, let alone from the 60s and 70s, and this conference is a big reason as to why," he said. "It brings together the best of youth and high school football."
"It wasn't just about Xs and Os," he said. "It provides high school coaches a universal teaching opportunity to take back to the different regions of the country so we can continue to develop the sport together."
"This conference allows us to make sure we are up-to-date on our best practices and resources and to focus on our areas of need and improvement," he said. "You really see the commitment coaches have to the sport at a conference like this, to continue its development as smartly as possible for the athletes playing it and to become better coaches on and off the field."
USA Football's Commitment to Safety
The National Conference is just one way USA Football helps coaches and players set high standards and build the safest possible environment for practices, drills and games.
"We work toward improving the sport for young athletes, seeking best practices to keep it fun and advance player safety," said USA Football Senior Director of Strategic Operations Beth Porreca.
Four years ago, USA Football—supported by a $45 million grant from the NFL Foundation—launched Heads Up Football, an educational outreach program that aims to improve player safety for youth and high school players.
Learn more about Heads Up Football here.
Improving Standards and Technique
Through Heads Up Football, USA Football teaches coaches, parents and players how to recognize and respond to injuries, including concussions. The organization also trains and certifies coaches on safety fundamentals and teaches proper tackling technique.
At the National Conference, USA Football's Andy Ryland and Philadelphia St. Joseph's Prep head coach Gabe Infante led a session on shoulder tackling and blocking—a technique also taught by the Seattle Seahawks—to try to help improve player safety.
The Heads Up Football program also instructs coaches how athletes' equipment should properly fit and appoints Player Safety Coaches (PSCs) to teach safety protocols.
In February 2015, USA Football released new youth tackle football practice guidelines, which have been endorsed by leading medical organizations. These include clear definitions of contact and time limits on full player-to-player contact.
Dr. Stan Herring is USA Football's Medical Advisory Committee Chairman and a physician at the University of Washington in Seattle. He's been working with USA Football since 2009.
"I've seen an incredible commitment to keep the game fun," he said. "And I've seen an incredible commitment to make the game safer."
Lessons from the Greats
Youth and high school coaches also got to learn from former NFL coaches and players who spoke about everything from character development and leadership to offensive and defensive fundamentals.
Former NFL head coach Brian Billick encouraged attendees at the USA Football National Conference to heed a lesson he'd learned from 49ers coaching great Bill Walsh.
"Make sure that every hour you spend designing or dissecting a play," Billick said, "you spend the same amount of time, another hour, perfecting how you're going to teach it."
NFL Legends Jerome Bettis and Ray Lewis spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about "What High School Football Taught Me"—lessons they learned playing high school football that carried over to their extraordinary professional careers.
Former NFL player and current ESPN analyst Desmond Howard stressed how great coaches are great leaders. "They're able to see in these young athletes something that they don't even see in themselves," he said. "And they're able to pull it out of them."
In a passionate speech, former coach and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden told young coaches to "find a veteran coach and seek knowledge, seek wisdom, learn the game…open your arms to these young guys and teach them the game."
The Future of Youth Football
Ray Odierno said he looks forward to providing professional development and educational opportunities for coaches.
"The one thing we all have in common in this room is we all love this great game of football," Odierno told conference attendees. "So it's important as we get together that we really think through that and think what is the future of football?"
Scott Hallenbeck spoke about how the organization believes it's time to bridge flag and 11-player tackle to encourage players to progress at the right age and stage.
"We envision the youth game pathway will include flag football, Rookie Tackle and 11-person football," Hallenbeck said.
Coaches Shaping Tomorrow's Leaders
USA Football hopes that this year's conference and future events will help coaches make the game better and safer in their communities and instill values of the sport that go far beyond the athletic field—the same lessons Odierno took from the game.
Youth players, Hallenbeck said, "become tomorrow's doctors, teachers, firefighters, CEOs, police officers and military leaders." These players, he emphasized, "are tomorrow's everyday citizens who will take the lessons and values you teach them on and off the field."