RIDGEWOOD — Jeff Feagles remembers how coaches used to deal with head injuries when he played high school football.
During his days at Gerard Catholic in Phoenix, Ariz., the former New York Giants punter heard them say things like, "You’ve got to be tough to play the game. You’re going to get hit, and you’re going to see stars every once in a while, but that’s part of the game."
"It was just the way things were," Feagles said earlier this week, chuckling at the notion. "Nobody ever knew about this concussion stuff."
The Ridgewood resident and retired 22-year National Football League veteran now knows plenty on the subject. He has begun serving as the ambassador between USA Football’s Heads Up Tackling program and the Ridgewood Junior Football Association (RJFA), in addition to continuing his work as RJFA secretary for a third straight season.
That connection helped bring about the Ridgewood sixth-grade Jets’ appearance at halftime of the Giants/Jets NFL preseason game at MetLife Stadium on Aug. 24.
Feagles’ long-term hope is that his work with the Heads Up program raises the profile of concussion awareness within the RJFA and the village as well.
"The more we can get this out so the community can know what we’re doing as a league, the better," he said. "The whole premise behind this is to make sure everybody understands that, one, what we’re doing in Ridgewood is teaching safe football, and two, for anyone that’s on the fence about their kids playing football, they can be assured that our program is going to do everything it can to help the safety of the kids."
The RJFA is planning to hold an informational meeting for parents with regards to Heads Up Football next Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Ridgewood High School Campus Center.
All four of Feagles’ sons have attended RHS, including the youngest, Zach, now a freshman football player there. Though no longer coaching his boys in junior football, Jeff is still keeping an eye on players throughout the league as Heads Up player-safety coach.
"I did a clinic with all the coaches, showing them the techniques [of proper tackling] and what the program is all about," said Feagles, who has been involved with the RJFA as a coach and/or board member since 2004. "Then, our coaches have had to go online – and about 95 percent of them have, at this point – to take an hour-and-20-minute course to get certified. The third part [requires] them to apply what the Heads Up program is all about toward their practice plans."
Thus far, "they’ve all been very receptive," he added.
So, too, have coaches and trainers at the high school.
RHS head football coach Chuck Johnson noted that he has been a staunch proponent of proper tackling technique since he took the helm of the Maroons’ varsity in 1984.
"It’s bizarre to me that it has taken so long for this to become popular," Johnson said, "and it’s unconscionable to me that coaches as recently as five or 10 years ago were teaching kids to tackle [by] putting their head or their face in the middle of a ball carrier. So I think it [the Heads Up program] is awesome, and it’s way, way, way, way, way, way, way overdue."
The coach pointed to the well-documented injury of Marc Buoniconti (whose father, Nick, was a hall of fame linebacker for the Dolphins) as an example of why tackling technique is so critical. The younger Buoniconti was rendered a quadriplegic after absorbing a blow to the crown of his helmet while making a tackle in a 1985 college game for The Citadel in South Carolina.
"You don’t want to tackle with your head down," Johnson said. "That’s what happened to Nick Buoniconti’s kid; some… trainer taped his facemask so his head would be down, and that’s why his spinal column collapsed like an accordion.
"You teach tackling with the face up," added Johnson, who teaches physical education and wellness at RHS. "When your face is up, the muscles in your neck are contracted, and your neck is in its strongest natural position."
In addition, RHS trainer Nick Nicholaides has become increasingly involved with concussion diagnosis and awareness in his nine years on the job.
He initiated the ImPACT (Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) program at the school in 2006 and received a grant from Seton Hall in 2010 to create a concussion awareness program for the entire district, which adheres to the slogan: "When in doubt, sit them out."
As far as the Heads Up program goes, "It’s really great, because I think that youth-level athletics is someplace where there’s always been a misunderstanding of concussions," Nicholaides said. "A lot of times they don’t have athletic trainers on the sidelines like we do here at the high school level, so it’s really important to educate the coaches on what signs and symptoms of a concussion are."
Feagles confirmed that for the 2013 season, the RJFA has hired certified trainers to be at all Pee-Wee, Junior and Senior home games. He is also hoping that his connections with the NFL – as well as the pro league’s advocacy of Heads Up – will further draw attention to the cause.
"Brian McCarthy, who lives in town here, is a good friend of mine who works with the league, and he’s assured me that they’re going to continue to support the program," said Feagles.
"There’s even a chance that we may be able to get — and, I’m still working on this," he stressed, "but maybe surprise visit by [NFL] Commissioner [Roger] Goodell at one of the Ridgewood Junior Football practices. That would be a huge, huge thing."
At its core, though, the Heads Up program remains a grassroots initiative set in motion by USA Football, the national governing body of the game at the youth and amateur levels. The organization’s website (usafootball.com) outlines not only the protocol for concussion treatment but also for injury prevention, which even goes beyond tackling technique.
"Sometimes, the kids’ helmets aren’t fitting correctly, and that’s why their heads are hurting," Feagles said. "So we have to start at that level when we’re fitting equipment to make sure that these kids are safe."
In his eyes, the goal of healthy players will have the ripple effect of creating a healthier RJFA.
"Our [participation] numbers are down at the lower levels because everyone is so concerned about concussions," said Feagles. "Especially with the third through sixth grade teams, that’s where we’re really trying to make sure our numbers stay up."