Football has long been America's favorite sport. Stadiums like "The Big House" at the University of Michigan's hold well over 100,000 fans and the NFL Super Bowl is practically a national holiday, drawing more than 100 million viewers annually.
But lately, the sport has come under fire from parents and fans concerned about the safety of the players amid recent studies about concussions and CTE, a degenerative brain disease that has been found in some former NFL players.
Anchorage football coaches have taken notice too and they are working to make the sport safer for their players by limiting contact in practice and implementing new tackling techniques that have players leading with the shoulder instead of the facemask.
"I think the whole concept of getting the head out of the tackle is saving the game," said West coach Tim Davis, whose team will play in the Division I state championship game Friday.
"What we want to do as coaches is we want to teach the best possible technique, getting the head out of the tackle, and getting the head out of the blocks, preventing those traumatic injuries."
These days, most players are taught the shoulder-tackling techniques made famous in 2014 in instructional videos produced by the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.
The techniques draw aspects from rugby tackles and focus on things like shoulder contact, wrapping up the runner and rolling to make a tackle, leverage and attacking the "strike zone," which is the area above the knees and below the neck.
The East football team last week was awarded a $10,000 equipment grant in part for the team's focus on "Hawk Tackling" — the method used by the Seahawks — but most teams are doing it these days, East coach Jeff Trotter said.
"Pretty much everyone is doing it at this point, but it's something we really emphasize," he said. "I think it's kind of the wave of what's going on."
Trotter shows the videos every day at the first few practices of the season and again midway through the season as a refresher. Because the techniques have only become widespread within the last five years, it's been a learning process for the coaches as well as the players, who in the past were taught to lead with their head across the body when making a tackle.
"They've been taught what is now considered the wrong way to tackles since they were in Pop Warner and Boys Club," Trotter said. "Now we're trying to break habits that they've developed."
West linebacker Javin Iloilo, a senior and the Cook Inlet Conference Defense Player of the Year, said he started learning new tackling methods as a freshman. Now it's all muscle memory, he said, but sometimes in games he still gets urges to make a violent hit.
"The hard hits, that's the only thing I kinda miss 'cause now we gotta keep our head out (of) the tackle," he said. "I really want to hit them as hard as I can, but then I can just see my coach in my ear going, 'Keep your head out (of) the tackle.' "
In addition to new techniques, teams are also limited on the number of hours they can spend doing contact drills in practice. Davis said the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) only allows teams 60 minutes of contact per week.
"When I was a player, I think we probably had 60 minutes of contact in the first hour of practice," he said. "That was the paradigm and what we've seen is a paradigm shift."
At Bartlett, the team rarely goes full-contact in practice. Instead it does drills in which offensive players hit pads called hand shields held by the defensive players, or defensive players get in position and wrap up the runner but don't take him all the way to the ground.
"We try to mimic a perfect-form tackle so when they get in a game, they already have the tools," said Bartlett defensive coordinator Nick Middleton. "I think the kids respect it and understand why we're doing it. When the games come, they just turn it on."
Middleton said football will always be a physical sport — there are still big hits and there will always be a risk of injury — but he believes the changes are making it safer.
"Ten, 15 years from now, I think football will evolve even more," he said. "I think sports in general are going to evolve around this issue of concussions and keeping kids safe."
First National Bowl Series
Division I championship
6:30 p.m. — Bartlett (7-3) vs. West (6-4), Anchorage Football Stadium
TV: GCI cable Channel 1
Radio: 93.7 FM