A South Bay high school football team is celebrating its first concussion-free season in years, and the coaching staff points to a new tackling method as the reason.
The Mountain View High School Spartans finished the 2015 varsity football season with no concussions.
Coach Shelley Smith says the team’s trainer logs all concussions — whether minor or major — and last year there were none to report.
"In the 16 years I've been coaching, that's only happened one time," said Smith, who has been head coach at Mountain View High for four years. He now also serves as the school's athletic director.
“The other sports in our school actually had more concussions than our football program,” Smith said.
The junior varsity football team did have three concussions last year, but Smith says overall the numbers were reduced.
The Spartans have been practicing a new rugby-style tackle called the “Hawk Tackle,” a method used by the Seattle Seahawks.
Smith says the change was made after attending a coaching clinic in February 2015, where a Seahawks coach introduced the method.
“Basically it’s a shoulder leverage type tackle. Takes the head out,” Smith said. “When I was growing up and involved with football and early stages of coaching, your head was always involved in the tackle. This basically stresses taking the head out of the tackle or out of the contact zones and we’ve had a lot of success so far. It’s been good.”
The players admit learning the new tackle was at first difficult.
“It was a little awkward at first…you don’t really see a lot of teams doing it,” said Ulysses Gutierrez, a senior who has played Varsity for three years. “But once we got into the rhythm of it, it didn’t feel awkward anymore.”
Team trainer Achilles Walker has been tracking the number of concussions since he arrived two years ago. He doesn't have data on the number of concussions from previous seasons, yet during his 17 years as a trainer, he says a concussion-free team is hard to find.
"It is rare, especially at the varsity level," Walker said. "Kids are bigger, faster and stronger and so typically when they do get hit and the head hits the ground, the brain is going to move from side to side."
Walker performs an impact test at the beginning of the season to determine how well each player's brain is functioning before they can play. That test allows the coaching staff to monitor players throughout the season.
"Our approach was protect the head and move from there," Walker said.
Concussion diagnoses amongst California kids are on the rise while participation in high school football is down, according to an investigative report by the San Jose Mercury News released this week.
Meanwhile, the paper found high school football participation in California is down 7 percent over the past decade.
Roughly 18,000 kids ages 9 to 18 were discharched from the emergency room with a sports-related injury in 2014, according to the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. Less than 12,000 kids of the same age were discharged in 2005.
The Spartans are 1-0 this season and so far have had no concussions.