Hyacks football brings safety to the fore, pioneering switch to practice caps a big step

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NEW WESTMINSTER — It is one of the most traditional sounds in all of sports.


As identifiable as the crack of ball off a wooden bat, or the swish of a basketball ripping through a nylon net, the clink and the clack of helmets on the gridiron is football’s siren song.


Yet if you had stood on the sidelines over the past couple of weeks at Mercer Stadium during any of the New Westminster Hyacks’ 10 spring football practices, you might have wondered where that softer, gentler noise was coming from.


“Coaches love to hear plastic on plastic,” begins Hyacks senior varsity head coach Farhan Lalji. “But now practice sounds different. This is part of a culture change.”


New Westminster Secondary has become the first football program of any kind in B.C. to don the Guardian Cap, a soft shell helmet cover that stretches over the existing plastic football helmet. The U.S.-based company claims it reduces the impact of a hit by as much as 33 per cent.


While not used in games, it has become standard-issue for Hyacks practices, and Lalji is hopeful that it will provide yet another level of protection in a sport where head injuries remain in the forefront of discussion from the NFL right down to youth leagues.





This past season, the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association took the big step of instituting pre-season baseline testing for all of its players.


According to stats provided by the BCSSFA’s Jess Doyle, the association tested some 3,000 players at 60 schools in a number of areas relating to brain function with those results serving as a comparative baseline for any player suffering a potential concussion during the season.


“Of those (60) schools,” wrote Doyle in an email to The Province, “22 programs requested after-injury tests, and 77 after-injury credits in total. This does not mean that there were 77 concussions last year, but 22 programs requested that the follow-up test be available.”


Adds Lalji, who recently completed a three-year term as the BCSSFA’s president (2010-12): “We still get some push back. I think some still don’t have their heads wrapped around what these tests do. We are not asking them to diagnose a thing. But we have phased this in, and it’s now mandatory at all levels down to Grade 8.”





The decision to introduce Guardian Caps to the Hyacks’ two varsity teams has not come without a cost.


Lalji, who found out about the caps while reading member literature from the American Football Coaches Association, says that the program purchased 50 caps at the cost of about $50 per cap.


And wearing them has brought about subtle changes in the pace and cadence of practice.


With different coloured caps signifying a player’s spot on specific units during practice, allowances have had

to be made in-between drills for players to put the caps on.


“It’s not instant, it’s about a 30-second procedure to get them on and off,” admits Lalji. “And I won’t deny it, it’s taken some getting used to.”


But then, the coach makes a point that brings the entire exercise into perspective.


“How often,” asks Lalji, “is safety convenient?”


And while there are many other factors that go into creating that so-called safer environment, like proper tackling technique, practice is the place where most concussions occur.


“We get significantly more hits in practice than in a game,” Lalji begins. “It’s exponentially more. You do specific contact drills.”





In under three months time, the 2014 B.C. high school football season will be underway.


And while the din of practice may be a lot quieter over at New Westminster than at every other school in the province, the sounds of a more pronounced silence are speaking loud and clear.


“I am not sure how many people even know (Guardian Caps) exist,” Lalji says. “I followed up with a few coaches in the U.S. who are using them and got their feedback and they seemed to think it makes a difference. But we should all be looking at any way possible to protect kids. In my time as (BCSSFA) president, head injuries were the focus of everything l tried to do. I have read volumes on the the issue, so much that I have concussion fatigue.


“But what it boils down to for me is this: It’s an issue. I have read all the science. And any coach that wants to bury their head in the sand and have that old-school attitude is naive.”


He points out trends at the professional level which signify the cultural change that is slowly taking place. Targeting the head with the term ‘ear-hole’ has left the coaches vocabulary, and the so-called big hit on the field isn’t so much glorified as it is analyzed as either a legal or illegal hit.


“These are cultural things,” he concludes. “But again, the big thing is, when is safety convenient? I’ve got a five-year-old and I want him to play football if he chooses to do so, and be safe when he puts on the pads. This is a special sport that is different in its dynamics, and teaches lessons that others don’t. And I don’t want kids to lose out on that opportunity.”

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