Picture football without kick-offs or onside kicks, two staples of the sport since it was created in the late 19th century, and then picture the results it can have for player health.
There is only one league in America that knows the answer to that, and it so happens to be endemic to one part of the local football scene. For the Metropolitan Independent Football League, the decision was no coincidence because it may literally be saving lives.
The need for change was clear to Riverdale Country Athletics Director John Pizzi, citing the new set of rules as something that could “change football in America.” Now in his 11th year heading up Riverdale Athletics, Pizzi had a firsthand look of the high frequency of concussions among other injuries that mounted for the varsity football team at Riverdale in 2018. The injury bug got so bad that Pizzi and then-head coach Phil Treglia had to pull the plug on their season ahead of a playoff game against Long Island Lutheran.
“We had under 20 healthy players, about half of whom never had significant minutes in a varsity game,” Pizzi said. “After the seasons ended we had to take a strong look at what we needed to do to keep the program going.”
Pizzi sought out Chris Nowinksi, PhD, a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, who became an expert in the field of neuroscience after developing post-concussion syndrome from a wrestling injury in 2003. What followed was a deep dive between Riverdale and The Concussion Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit created by Nowinski that served as the data hub for the project.
“I explained the situation and said ‘you and I need to figure this out and I want to change football in America,” Pizzi says. “He kind of laughed and I said ‘no, I’m serious.’”
With the help of data scientists, they scoured over data and found trends from every level of football that exists.
The research lasted for a year and a half and even enlisted the help of three brothers at Riverdale who played football and developed a passion for making the game safer. What they extracted put their concerns into a full lens view: head injuries in football are a growing problem only getting worse, chief among them being chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Pizzi and his team presented their findings to league officials with about a dozen ideas of how they can do it right.
They settled on eliminating the kick-offs because of the potential for injuries surrounding them.
A study done by Ivy League researchers in 2015 found that although kick-offs account for only 6 percent of plays, they contribute to 21 percent of concussions in football.
“Typically you are not having your best athletes on special teams so the chances for injuries are higher,” Pizzi said.
The cohort needing the most convincing were the coaches, who had to adjust without the fundamental concept of kick returns. However, there was one common theme that loomed large.
“Some of the coaches were a little skeptical of the ideas,” Pizzi said. “But I think the majority of them had safety as the number one priority.”
Pizzi was grateful for the support of Riverdale administrators throughout the process. And by the time the 2021 season came around, three rule changes took over in full force around the league. In addition to eliminating the kick-offs and onsides kicks, full-contact practices during preseason were restricted to six hours and then to 15 minutes per week during the Fall season. Protocols also called for every team to provide ambulances to transport injured players to and from the hospitals. Full medical staff line each sideline as well.
This simple, yet seemingly drastic departure from the norms of football led to a 33 percent decrease in concussions.
The benefits extend to how coaches coach, too. They are being able to emphasize technique in tackling over brute strength. For Riverdale football coach Brendan Connolly, it makes his job easier to teach players who already like to think.
“At a school like Riverdale all the pressure is with academics,” said Connolly, who recently completed his second season. “One of the things we hear from kids who play for the first time is not knowing how mental football is, which for our population is an even better thing because they’re appreciating the cerebral side of the game.”
The complexion of field position is relative to your own 35-yard-line, where every possession starts instead of the kick-off. And in crunch time, the onus is on the offense to convert a 4th down and 12 yards from their own 40-yard-line to simulate the feel of an onside kick since it is off limits. The conversion automatically leads to having the ball on the opponent’s 48-yard-line no matter how many extra yards are picked up.
Then, vice versa on a failed conversion.
“Fourth-and-12 is much easier to convert than an onside kick,” Connolly said. “It’s a much higher probability.”
There could be added tweaks on the fly to improve the overall mission of keeping players healthy, Pizzi says, but nothing too crazy not to disrupt from the headway already made and to keep parents happy. Last year, 44 boys at Riverdale came out to play football, which was the largest amount in at least a decade. The rules changes have taken one league by storm, and now the goal is to spread it all over.
“Riverdale is focused on getting information out to the rest of the country and to target and let people know that these minor changes do not affect the game of football,” Pizzi said.