U.S. moms tackle concussions at pro-safety football camp
In midst of 'concussion crisis,' USA Football offers safety clinics for moms
The women seem giddy as they pour into the team meeting room of the NFL Carolina Panthers.
Wearing matching T-shirts and big smiles, many pause to take selfies at the edge of the roped-off dressing room, leaning in to snap a photo of their favourite player's jersey.
This is rare access to a world many football fans worship, and these mothers of young players — and maybe tomorrow's stars — have been invited here to help save America's game.
"Moms, you are the most important factor in this situation," former high school coach and USA Football trainer EZ Smith bellows from the front of the room.
"We want to make it safe, want to make it the best we can. And what we have to do is teach you how to tackle."
Hundreds of women across the U.S. are hearing the same message. This is the second year some NFL teams have hosted moms' safety clinics, in partnership with USA Football.
Brandy McCoy, a single mom from Troutman, North Carolina, sits at the back of the room. Tackling is exactly what she is here to learn.
Two years ago, her then 11-year-old son Evan suffered a concussion at practice with a team from the Troutman community league.
He missed school for two months, but went back on the football field as soon as he was able, and she is worried he will get hurt again.
"I really wanted to know the ins and outs of concussions, so I can teach him everything he needs to know," she says.
The concussion crisis in pro-football — there were 123 in the NFL last season, by some accounts, down from a high of about 173 in 2012 — has changed perceptions of the game across America.
Although the sport remains incredibly popular — and lucrative — there are some signs it might not stay that way.
A Bloomberg poll from December 2014 found half of all parents surveyed wouldn't let their sons play football. And just 17 per cent of parents believed the sport would remain popular 20 years from now.
In response to safety concerns, USA Football, the body that governs amateur football in the U.S., has changed the way it teaches the game.
A program called Heads Up Football uses specific drills to teach kids how to tackle, without crashing helmets.
Instead of wrapping arms around an opponent, head-down, the tackler is now being encouraged to keep their head and eyes up at all times while aiming to make contact with an opponent's shoulder.
USA Football estimates half of the country's young football players are now learning the game this way.
"We want to be proactive," says master trainer Eric Passino. "Now's actually the best time to have your child play football, because with over half of the youth population doing Heads Up now, as a parent you know what to look for, all your coaches know what to look for when it comes to concussion."
Take to the field
But simply hearing how football is safe is one thing, learning first-hand is something else again.
Before the clinic is over, the mothers themselves will take to the practice field.
As the sun sets, they attack football bags with the proper technique. They learn the "hit position" — feet braced, shoulders back, arms up. And they take turns flopping onto cushions to mimic the proper thrusting motion of a well-executed tackle.
Brandy McCoy leaves the field beaming.
In addition to all the drills, she had a chance to ask the athletic trainer for the Carolina Panthers a question about her son. Two years after Evan recovered from his concussion, he is still timid on the field.
"My question would be this year, when he starts, what can I tell him to reassure him that he's not going to get hurt?" she asked.
Ryan Vermillion tells her that her son was very likely healed from his previous concussion. And he told her to encourage him, and make sure his coach was aware of the injury and could work to build the boy's confidence and technique.
"There's a way to play this game and love this game," Vermillion says. "This game is our life, it's a great way of life if done the right way."
McCoy smiles at the advice. She admits that if she had her way her son would probably not play football. But it is the only sport he plays, her dad played, her brother played, and she's a huge fan.
"Football is America's sport," she says. "There's something in all sports that you can get hurt. We just have to teach our boys not to be fearful of what might happen, we have to teach them to follow their dreams."
And if her son's dreams come with danger, well, she is doing what she can to keep him safe?