Greg Grant felt it was time for a new perspective.
As a member of the OSAA’s Football Ad Hoc Advisory committee, Grant, the longtime head football coach at Heppner High School, took part in ongoing discussions happening between the several experienced coaches on the committee on ways to make the game safer and more enjoyable at the youth level.
“It became really evident that there needed to be a better way to introduce kids to tackle football,” Grant said recently.
The discussion soon centered around Rookie Tackle, a relatively new initiative from USA Football that aims to bridge the gap between flag football and full-fledged 11-person tackle football at the youth level, similarly to the way baseball goes from T-Ball to coach pitch and then to player pitch. The Tualatin Valley Youth Football League, which covers the Tualatin Valley and Portland metro areas and includes more than 6,500 players, were part of the 2017 Pilot Program for Rookie Tackle. Seventeen teams playing Rookie Tackle and the feedback was positive.
Grant decided to research it further with the possibility of bringing it to Heppner this fall. Unlike most youth leagues, Heppner has not started tackle football until fifth grade, but even then Grant said he and the youth coaches sometimes thought it was still too early.
“We always struggled with making sure kids didn’t sour early with tackling,” Grant said. “And when I saw this (Rookie Tackle), it’s just like a natural progression. Plus I also felt like it’s time to look at things a little bit differently ... because it’s not all about teaching kids to hit each other hard.”
Grant pitched Rookie Tackle to his youth coaches and the group liked the idea. So starting this fall, Heppner will keep its flag football program in place for grades 3-4, implement Rookie Tackle for grades 5-6 and then will implement 11-man tackle football beginning in seventh grade.
Here is an overview some of the key components of Rookie Tackle:
● Smaller field: Rather than playing on the full regulation-sized 100-yard-by-55-yard football field, the field is split into two 40-yard-by-35-yard fields, with a gap in the middle for the coaches to watch the action.
● Smaller rosters: Teams will be comprised of six, seven or eight players on each side and the players will play multiple positions on the field during the game and will not be limited to only one position. The smaller rosters and position rotation maximizes space on the field and allows for more playing time and skill development and fewer kids standing on the sidelines.
● Rule changes: There are no three-point stances for either offensive or defensive line positions. Instead, players at those positions will start in upright, two-point stances, which will decrease the chances for blows to the head coming out of the three-point stances.
OSAA Assistant Executive Director Brad Garrett, who sits on USA Football’s Board of Directors, said in an interview that he believes Rookie Tackle could be a good way to help participation in football at the high school level increase again.
According to the National Federation of High School Athletics Association surveys, participation in 11-man football at the high school level in Oregon has decreased each of the last four years, from 13,212 players in 2013 to 12,185 in 2016.
“For me it’s all about the future of the game,” Garrett said, who has been around football as a player, coach and executive for 40 years. “If someone didn’t step in an affect change, I’m not sure of what the future held. Our goal should be to retain more players and minimize the risk, and this (Rookie Tackle) does that.”
While the OSAA can’t instruct individual youth leagues to implement Rookie Tackle, Garrett said that the OSAA would like to see the structure in all leagues like Heppner will have this fall with flag football, Rookie Tackle and then to tackle football starting in seventh grade.
“Coach Grant is a leader that is taking charge, which is what we like to see,” Garrett said. “My pitch is to reach out to the high school coaches and open their eyes to the subject. If the OSAA will get anything done, we know it will be through leadership and we’ll find it with the head football coaches to make a difference.”
Heppner is hosting a Rookie Tackle Jamboree on September 8 with John Day and Stanfield youth programs already committed to playing, and he said Boardman is also interested. Pendleton Youth Football president Ron Smith said that he and people involved with PYF have looked into Rookie Tackle, but it’s not something that they have discussed as a board as of yet.
“It’s definitely worth a look,” Smith said. “We’re noticing a decline in our numbers over the last few years, some kids just moving away, some kids playing other sports and others because of the concussions fear. ... It’s definitely on the table, maybe in the next two years.”
Smith added that the City of Pendleton Parks and Recreation started a pee wee flag football program for grades 1-4 this summer, and that PYF hopes to team up with that program to increase participation.
Grant admitted that it won’t be an easy implementation, especially when it comes to trying to prove to parents that have either played tackle football or already had kids go through tackle at the youth level that Rookie Tackle isn’t some sort of step backwards.
“Instead of 11 on 11, it’ll just be 8 on 8 or something, with kids playing different positions,” Grant said. “It should be fun.”