The National Federation of State High School Associations decided upon new rules for targeting and kick offs that will be implemented in the fall.

by: JEFF GOODMAN - A Wilsonville player getting ready to tackle a Sherwood player last season.

Amid mounting concerns about head injuries and overall player safety, Oregon high school football games this coming fall will follow new guidelines for targeting that the National Federation of State High School Associations established earlier this year.

Area coaches and players are weighing adjustments to their approaches and techniques in response to the new rule, which defines targeting as “an act of taking aim and initiating contact to an opponent above the shoulders with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulders.”

A new definition for a “defenseless player”— someone who is vulnerable to injury because of his position and focus of concentration — was also included as part of the changes, which follow similar legislative efforts in the professional and collegiate ranks to make the sport safer.

More than 1.1 million high school students play football nationwide, according to a recent NFHS survey of its member state associations, making it the top sport for participation among boys.

Nearly 47,000 patients were treated for football-related head injuries in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2009, according to an American Association of Neurological Surgeons study using U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission data.

“The football rule committee’s actions this year reinforce a continued emphasis on minimizing risk within all phases of the game,” said committee chairman Brad Garrett, who serves as the OSAA assistant executive director.


Impact on outcomes?

Standard targeting transgressions will come with 15-yard penalties, but offending players could be ejected if their actions are deemed flagrant by officials.

Canby football coach Mike Vaught said he favors the objective of the targeting rule but worries that it could be applied erroneously by mistake. In essence, he’s afraid an official’s judgment could lead to the ejection of a key player.

“In college, they have instant replay and they can make sure they get it right,” he said. “For us at the high school level, it’s a good rule. But if a referee makes a poor decision and you lose somebody, it could change the outcome of a game.”

According to Vaught, head injuries have been rare during his four-year tenure as Canby’s head coach. The only incident that came to mind was a mild concussion sustained by now-graduated lineman Craig Fobert during the Cougars’ nonconference game at Jesuit during the 2012 season.

Still, Vaught said he understands the importance of the national governing body’s new emphasis on player safety.

“The intent of the rule is great — we have to protect the kids,” Vaught said. “We have to teach the guys to stay completely away from the head.”


‘Anything to make the game safer’

For Doug Bilodeau, the teaching process starts at the top.

The North Marion coach is scheduled to participate in a USA Football program to learn and coach proper tackling protocol. He will then pass along the training to his assistants and local Pop Warner youth coaches.

Bilodeau said the Huskies have avoided head injuries during his tenure but added that he’s surprised the new rules for high school football weren’t adopted sooner.

“It’s interesting it took this long,” he said. “The colleges are really focusing on it, so you’d think they’d bring it down together.”

Bilodeau hopes the new rules discourage dangerous plays, like the “hellacious” hit one of his receivers took from a free safety while running a slant rout this past season. The receiver was not seriously injured, but Bilodeau has learned not to take safety for granted.

Last summer, while North Marion was raising money for new, safer helmets, Bilodeau received a donation from Laguna Beach, Calif., in honor of Devin Hands, a former high school football player who died at the age of 22.

Hands had shown early symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that has been linked to repeated blows to the head.

“I support anything to make the game safer,” Bilodeau said. “People say it’ll take away from the game, but I don’t want to take anything away from the kid. That’s what’s really important.

“There have been a few times where there were questionable calls, but officials are working on the side of safety.”


Kickoff changes, too

Nov. 5, 2010, was a scary night for the Wilsonville football team.

It was coach Adam Guenther’s first year at the helm, and the Wildcats were hosting Portland-Wilson in the Class 5A play-in round.

In the second quarter, Danny Leece briefly lost consciousness and sustained a severe concussion after being hit hard in kickoff coverage. He had other injuries, too, including a broken rib.

Now, in an effort to further promote player safety, the NFHS football rules committee has approved two new kickoff requirements for the kicking team.

At least four members of the kicking team must be on each side of the kicker and, other than the kicker, no members of the kicking team may be more than five yards behind the kicking team’s free-kick line. The latter change limits the maximum distance of the run-up for the kicking team.

Guenther stressed that he remembers the incident involving Leece so well because it is an outlier. In his 15 years as a football coach, he has witnessed just three players leaving the field in ambulances.

Shortly after play resumed following Leece’s injury, another Wilsonville player went down. This time it was Gabriel Carbajal, who made helmet-to-helmet contact with Wilson’s Jacob Duilio near the end zone on Duilio’s interception return.

“We play a violent game, but it’s safe when people use proper techniques and good form,” he said. “It’s a hard-hitting impact game, and we don’t want anybody to get hurt. That’s why we stress the fundamentals from third grade all the way up through high school.”


Judgment calls

The new targeting rules underscore the challenges of officiating a sport like football, particularly without instant replay.

At full speed, Guenther said, it can be hard to determine the nature and intent of all contact.

“My biggest concern is that it opens up a lot of judgment calls,” he said. “It opens a lot up to their perception. But that goes along with holding, clipping and pass interference. The officials do the best job they can, and their job is to make sure everyone can go home safely after the game.”

Some critics have claimed that the new amendments put defenses at a disadvantage, but offensive players can be penalized as well.

Guenther recalled a recent game against Bend-Mountain View during which a Wildcats running back was flagged for putting his head down and initiating helmet-to-helmet contact.

“I don’t think kids purposely do that,” he said. “They’re out they’re playing ball, and natural instincts can take over. If you’ve got a yard to go, you’ll want to do everything you can to get that yard.”

As for how officials will incorporate the new statutes?

“They don’t want to change the outcomes of games,” Guenther said. “It’s just one more rule getting put in place for the safety of the players. It’s one more thing they’ll be looking for.”

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