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HS football coaches preach safety as new PSA urges flag football for younger kids

Coaches say they're teaching the game differently to keep kids safer and healthier on the field.

ST PAUL, Minn. — When Chuck Miesbauer starred for the Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders in the early 2000s, football was a different game.

"We've really changed the 'head out of the tackle.' Go low," said Miesbauer, who is now the head coach at his alma mater. "It's not bad to go low as it was when I was playing."

Football, as a sport, has endured a reckoning over safety and concussions in the two decades since Miesbauer graduated from Cretin-Derham Hall in 2003. After playing college football at Concordia, Miesbauer embarked on a coaching career and took a job at the college level in 2011 -- which is when he says he really started to notice a shift in philosophy toward the rugby-style "hawk tackling technique" introduced by coach Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks. 

Credit: KARE 11
KARE 11 archives show Chuck Miesbauer playing football for Cretin-Derham Hall in the early 2000s.

After accepting the head coaching job at Cretin-Derham Hall in 2019, Miesbauer introduced his own version of safer "heads-up tackling." He said his team spends only 20 to 25 minutes each week on tackling drills, and that oftentimes players will learn the techniques without their pads.

"If you do it correctly," Miesbauer said, "you won't notice the difference when you have pads on or off." 

Credit: KARE 11
Miesbauer is now the head coach at his alma mater.

Miesbauer said that Cretin-Derham Hall has not seen a huge decline in participation on the football team relative to enrollment, but it's well-documented that many programs across the nation have seen a drop in numbers. According to a pre-pandemic survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in 2019, high school football drew the smallest amount of players in 20 years. 

The game remains the most popular among high school boys in America, and the number of actual high school programs has not dropped, according to the survey.

But as NFHS executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff acknowledged, "we recognize that the decline in football participation is due, in part, to concerns about the risk of injury."

This week, a new message emerged from Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre and the Concussion Legacy Foundation: Keep kids away from tackle football until they're 14 years old. In a one-minute PSA, Favre warned of the dangers of the brain disease CTE if kids start too early. Instead, the PSA encourages families to "Join Brett Favre and choose Flag Football Under 14." 

Favre, the former Packers and Vikings great, needs no introduction in this region of the Upper Midwest. Across the league, he was known for this toughness and durability. To this day, he holds the NFL record for consecutive games started with 297 in a row spanning 19 seasons.

"If he is telling you, 'Hey, let's pause on tackle football with your kids,' hopefully we'll believe him because he's earned our trust," Concussion Legacy Foundation CEO and co-founder Dr. Chris Nowinski said. "Tackle football was not ever meant for young children."

Nowinski, a former college football player at Harvard and a professional wrestler, lost his athletic career to a concussion. After earning his doctorate in behavioral neuroscience, he became a leading voice on the dangers of concussions at the Concussion Legacy Foundation. 

In a news release announcing the PSA, the foundation cited research showing the "odds of developing CTE may increase by 30% per year of tackle football played." 

"Parents are making, I think, better choices for football with their children. Tackle football participation is down 30 percent over the last 10 years; flag football participation is way up," Nowinski said. "And people are learning that you can learn all the skills you need in flag, and that can set you up for a great high school football -- tackle football -- career."

At Cretin-Derham Hall, Chuck Miesbauer hopes to lead the Raiders into a new generation of tackle football, based on safer techniques and less emphasis on contact in practice.

"When you limit the contact, you limit the risk," he said, "and my kids have stayed very safe in my two years here."

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