Induction week at the Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn't just about the legends of the game. It also was about the kids.
High school players. Middle schoolers. Youth teams.
Sure, the highest level of the sport is celebrated in Canton, Ohio, each year. Inspiring youngsters to play, educating their parents and coaches about the game — including health and safety topics that are of concern at all levels — and giving them one-on-one instructions all are addressed during the week, too.
Chad Pennington, the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year for the Jets in 2006 and for the Dolphins in 2008, is a member of the league's Legends Youth Advisory Committee, which was launched earlier this year. It guides efforts to grow youth and high school football.
"What we realize is that we can play a bigger role in creating uniformity and consistency that has not been there, and also being a leader and pioneer in the new technologies and equipment in protecting out players," Pennington said. "The game no longer is played like it was 30 or 40 years ago. We've had rules changes, equipment changes, teaching methods — all are important in protecting our players and advancing the game. We want to create that consistency on the top level and then have it trickle down."
Pennington is joined by former players Mark Brunell, Nate Burleson, Trent Dilfer, Maurice Jones-Drew, Willie McGinest, Jordan Palmer, Michael Robinson, Bobby Taylor and Hall of Famer Deion Sanders on the committee. Pennington is the head coach at Sayre High School in Lexington, so he deals directly with all constituencies.
"As a committee, as football people, we need to begin to control the narrative and make sure the right and truthful information is being put out to the fans and to our families and to our kids," he says. "We understand we have got to start with how you play the game and proper playing techniques that need to be utilized."
Pennington recognizes the trepidation many parents feel about the dangers of football — or any contact sport. He says it's natural to have those concerns, and that those involved directly in football must stress the scientific data collected about the game. He sees little value in the comparison of high school athletes in non-contact sports and in football, which Pennington says is not "true data."
Most importantly, Pennington says there needs to be a partnership between parents and coaches.
"We teach the parents on the safety techniques and show them how we are educating and protecting their sons," he explains. "You earn their trust by their knowing that I am dealing with the most important person in your life, your son. All these different sports — lacrosse, soccer, hockey, basketball, for example — are dealing with injuries. Fortunately, we can be the pioneer in football. We look at it as an amazing opportunity to be in the forefront in the research and in player protection."
Crucial to any such movement is ensuring the coaches are qualified. On the youth level, many coaches are volunteers, often parents of a player. But coaches must be vetted, educated and then fully prepared; no scribbling down notes after work and then running a practice session.
"For coaches at the grassroots level, the NFL can provide the standard and messaging, but we realize the health of the game of football is in the grassroots level, youth and high school level. As we build our initiatives and work as a committee, we need to reach those levels to provide the necessary resources and materials to coach the game together, and make sure all of our participants are having a good experience.
"We as high school coaches have to play an instrumental part in the youth in our area, working with those coaches, given them the resources they can use to teach the players. Many times in youth leagues you could have passionate fathers coaching the way they were taught 25 years ago. Days of lining up and hitting for two hours are gone. It's about techniques, drills, making sure you limit 11-on-11 contact. Be skill specific.
"It has been difficult to change what they were taught since they were 10 years old. If we can do it at younger ages, players who move on to college and pros are educated as they need to be."
Several members of the class of 2019 for the Hall of Fame emphasized the benefits of the sport during their induction speeches.
"That's what football has always taught me," Tony Gonzalez said. "On the football field, you're going to be afraid. Adversity is going to come towards you. You can't run from it."
Those lessons carry on beyond your sport, of course.
"We all know regardless of what level you play," Pennington says, "at some point, the ball stops spinning, you no longer play the game, but the values you learn are so important to the next step of your life."