The Buffalo Bills, in partnership with USA Football, hosted an estimated 250 young athletes, their families and coaches inside New Era Field on Friday to discuss how to increase safety in the game of football.
USA Football's "Protection Tour" began last month in Denver and is visiting practice sites or home stadiums of six National Football League franchises.
In light of a recent Journal of the American Medical Association report on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the significant percentage of it found among the brains of deceased football players that were studied, people within the sport acknowledge the concern for kids who are taking up the sport. But advocates for football say the game can be safe, if played properly.
"Everything that we're doing right now is to make sure that football in Western New York is as safe as possible," said Preston Teague, director of community relations for the Buffalo Bills. "We're informing parents and children of all the inherent risks associated with football, but all the benefits associated wit it as well. We think it's a great sport. It teaches discipline, camaraderie."
The purpose of the "Protection Tour" is to educate coaches, players and parents on safety issues including properly-fitting equipment and the right way to tackle.
That includes being aware of not putting one's head down to make a tackle or using it as part of a hit. Josh Schurr, a coach with the Warsaw Junior Tigers youth football program, credited USA Football's "Heads Up" program for raising awareness of how to play the game more safely and keep one's head up.
"We talk about that constantly in practice," Schurr said. "They know what the right thing to do is and yet, at the ages we deal with, it's very hard to teach them the right way, to not have their head down. They're learning. They embrace it. They play very hard for us."
Another safety issue address during the tour is hydration. It is perhaps, according to one USA Football official, one of the areas in which kids could stand to improve.
"I think the biggest thing the kids don't realize is the prep that goes into practice," said Amanda Cozze, USA Football's senior coordinator of sponsorship, marketing and activation. "They don't realize once they are thirsty, that's when they're already dehydrated. I think they need to practice more prepping for practice and be sure to drink plenty of water the week leading up to practice."
After a weekend stop in Pittsburgh, the USA Football Protection Tour was scheduled to wrap up in Cincinnati on August 26.