NFL athletes team up with rugby pros to teach safe tackling – Collegiate Rugby Championship
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New England Patriots player Nate Ebner is taking a leave of absence to train for USA Sevens Rugby & the Olympic games. His Collegiate Rugby Championship highlights are insane! #BEAST

Posted by USA Sevens Rugby on Tuesday, March 15, 2016
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By: Cutler Klein

While the best players in collegiate rugby took the field inside PPL Park on Sunday, the fields adjacent to the stadium played host to the Rhino Safe Tackling Clinic, an innovative clinic that taught football and rugby players of all ages how to tackle properly and safely. Hundreds of kids from all levels of football and rugby, as well as many coaches, turned out for an hour and a half of learning and fun.

Dave Hodges, the director of the clinic, said that the clinic was designed to bring tackling principles from rugby to football, a sport that has been subject to recent controversy over head injuries due to rough tackling.

“Football and rugby are very connected by their origins,” he said. “In football these days, tackling has become controversial. People inside football are saying ‘our sport has become dangerous.’ The idea of this clinic is to emphasize rugby tackling principles to allow players to tackle more effectively and safely.”

Tackling in football recently has been marked by concussions and other devastating injuries due to the fact that players do not tackle properly. They lead with their head, instead of with their shoulders. Rugby tackling incorporates much more of the shoulder into the tackle, as there are no helmets to protect players. If applied to the game of football, rugby tackling principles, like the ones taught during this clinic, could reduce head injuries and make football safer for all players involved.

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Young athletes listen to instruction from former NFL players and US National Team rugby players.

It wasn’t just the kids that learned proper tackling techniques. Former NFL stars turned out for the clinic to teach, and also to learn. Ike Reese, former linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, said that rugby tackling principles fit nicely with the needs of today’s NFL. 

“Today’s football game is so much different than the game I played,” he said. “Rugby tackling technique is perfect for today’s football players. I think if we learned those techniques at a younger age, like a lot of these kids are getting the chance to do, that would certainly cut down on head injuries and concussions.”

Other notable guests included former Eagle Hollis Thomas, New England Patriots player and former rugby player Nate Ebner, and former NFL player and current NFL director of football development Matt Birk, who attended not just to exchange ideas on behalf of the league, but to educate himself.

“I work for the NFL, but I’m here because I want to be here,” he said. “I want to learn about it. Obviously, there’s things we can learn, like the areas where rugby and football are alike. I know they’re not the same, but they’re a lot alike. I’m a fan of the game, and just wanted to learn it.” 

Ebner and the other guests weren’t just observing; they were participating. They ran drills with the kids, and showed them how tackling is done safely. Ebner said that despite the different situations in each sport, tackling principles can be shared between them.

“Obviously, the tackle area can be a bit different,” he said. “But, I think the way that rugby players go into tackles, at least one-on-one, can be transferred over to make football safer.”

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New England Patriot and former CRC star, Nate Ebner, demonstrates proper technique.

It was a family affair as well. Birk brought along his daughters, while some coaches brought their own children to see the clinic. After a few photos with the celebrities, it was down to business. Each guest shared their own tackling experience with the group, before the kids broke down into groups and began tackling drills.

The clinic also attracted non-sports guests. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell was in attendance, and spoke to the group before the clinic started. He also watched the drills and got to see the future of football and rugby firsthand.

John Schaffer, coach of the Liberty High School Hurricanes, said that his players are influenced by some of the dangerous, head-first NFL hits, and brought his players there to learn how to tackle without getting injured.

“The kids watch the NFL games and see the stars that they like launching and using elbows, so they emulate that,” he said. “We are trying to weed that out, and so is the NFL. That’s why we came down here. Rugby seems to have less concussions than football. These techniques will help the boys be healthier and safer playing the game.”

All of the former NFL players agreed that teaching kids to tackle properly at a young age is crucial to their development as football players. Specifically, Ebner said, “I see younger players tackling with their heads. It’s scary, and I don’t like to see something like that. I think that there’s plenty we can do on our end to teach them the safer, and more effective way to tackle. It will make careers a lot longer.”

For the kids and coaches in attendance, the day was capped off with free tickets to the Championship matches inside PPL Park. The clinic began a partnership between rugby and football that can help both games grow and be safer. Birk said that the two sports can complement each other.

“We should exchange ideas, and have an open relationship,” he said. “I think that we can both make each other better. At the youth level, we just want kids having the safest experience possible, in any sport they play.”

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