On recent cool autumn night, Roger Goodell walked from group to group on the artificial turf football field. Wearing sneakers and a dark grey pullover, the NFL commissioner watched as the coaches put their players through a series of drills that just could help save football.
The players weren't hard-hitting behemoths like Ray Lewis or James Harrison, though. Goodell traveled from New York to Centreville, Va., earlier this month to watch 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds play the game. Officials with the Fairfax County Youth Football League and USA Football walked the commissioner through the drills of the "Heads-Up Football" initiative, a program co-sponsored by the NFL and USA Football that emphasizes safer tackling techniques, concussion awareness and proper equipment.
The pilot program is in only three cities now — Centreville, Santa Monica, Calif., and Noblesville, Ind. — but the NFL hopes it will soon be adopted by many more.
Goodell's mere presence at a youth league practice in Virginia underscores the full scope of the NFL's concern about the future of the sport in the wake of the concussion scare and a series of incidents that have portrayed the game in an ugly, violent light. Not only has the NFL had to change its own rules and more firmly police its players, but to protect the future of the sport, Goodell has been forced to address the issue from the bottom up.
"It's important to teach the right fundamentals at the earliest ages," Goodell said. "That stays with them throughout their careers, whether it ends in the NFL or whether it ends in college or high school. It's important for what we do on the NFL level to do it right, to have the proper techniques."
As concussion awareness and football player safety have become buzz topics at the professional level, the impact is being felt at the youth levels, where the risks have become too perilous for many and most leagues are ramping up precautionary measures.
While USA Football, the sport's national governing body, estimates 3 million children participate in youth football across the country, at least one study, conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, a Silver Spring, Md.-based trade association, found an 11 percent decline in tackle football's "core" participation the past three years.
Throughout the country, youth football is trying to regain its footing.
While he's been addressing rules and concussion protocols the past two years, Goodell said the challenge is bigger: The culture surrounding the sport must change.
"It doesn't happen overnight," he said. "You have to make changes and there are things that we have to do and stress over a period of time. . . . It's about changing the way people approach the game."
A tour of the youth football leagues in the Washington area shows some justification for the commissioner's concern.
The Lower Loudoun Boys Football League, which plays in the one of fastest-growing counties in the nation, is down at least 100 players and has eliminated five teams. In Fairfax, Va., the youth league has seen a nearly 10 percent drop in registration figures in recent years, falling from 6,700 players in 2010 to 6,034 this fall. The biggest decreases are among entry-level teams that feature younger players; the "anklebiters," 75-pound and 85-pound weight classes have lost a total of 35 teams in three years.
In Maryland, Rockville Football League's overall participation numbers are unchanged, but the league's organizers have seen losses in the youngest age groups. "If anything is going to hurt youth football, that's what will hurt," said Eric Hechman, the league president. "That's the lifeblood."
A recent Washington Post poll found that 67 percent of Americans say they'd still recommend children play youth or high school football, while 22 percent would discourage it. Of those who would discourage participation in youth football, 80 percent cited a chance of injury as a reason.
"That's a real concern, and I believe that safety has a lot to do with it," said former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who suffered 10 concussions during his NFL career.
Aikman, now a football analyst for Fox Sports, doesn't have a son, but if he did, he says he might not feel comfortable pushing him toward football. He is not alone among former players who have expressed that sentiment. Familiar with both the game's risks and rewards, though, Aikman said he might also have a difficult time discouraging a son from playing the sport.
Aikman said new legislation and improved equipment has actually made the game safer today, but that the NFL still struggles to dissociate itself from a culture of violence, which to a certain segment of fans remains the game's biggest appeal.
Aikman closely followed the "bountygate" scandal surrounding the New Orleans Saints, in which players were accused of receiving financial rewards for big hits and knocking opposing players out of games. While the league moved aggressively to punish those it believed were responsible, Aikman said the NFL did little to curb the story from dominating water-cooler discussion throughout the offseason.
"In fact," he said, "in some ways I think they promoted a lot of the coverage that came with bountygate. . . . I don't think that was good for the game."
That culture seeps down to the game's roots, and parents have no troubles connecting the dots to the sport's highest level. In fact, last month in Southern California, a coach and youth league president were suspended amidst allegations that a pee-wee team paid players for big hits and injuring opposing standouts. In Massachusetts last month, five players suffered concussions in a single Pop Warner game, leading to the suspensions of both coaches.
Even before those reports surfaced, youth leagues have been taking unprecedented steps to combat the sport's escalating image problem. It's at the youth level, observers say, upon which the future of the sport hinges.
"If they don't get this right, there's a very real possibility that football could go the way of boxing, where the sport is only there for those who need a way out, who have no other choice," said Von DuBose, one of the attorneys who is suing the NFL on behalf of former players who suffered concussions during their careers.
"I could see Friday nights across the country changing. Parents are going to be more tuned in with the long-term ramifications of playing football. If the NFL doesn't get this right, those parents are going to make an informed decision to keep their kids out."
Players and coaches are looking for a way to balance physical and safe play.
In Rockville, the pint-sized Wolverines arrived two hours before a recent night-time kickoff and ran through their drills with military-like precision. They sprinted full-speed from Point A to Point B. They never talked out of turn and they were attentive the entire time.
The sun had set by time their game was to start. The group of 11-year-olds huddled around their coaches for some final words.
"Did you guys study your plays last night?" asked James Wilson.
"You gonna have fun?"
An assistant coach approached the group.
"Real quick guys," he told the players. "I need you to do one thing for me. Are those guys over there your friends?"
"We can't go out here and be nice. We got to go out and do what?"
"Hit!" several players shouted. "Be violent," said another.
"That's right, we got to be violent, we got to hit. In between the whistles, alright? Okay, let's do it."
Sophia Berns watched the ensuing game intently from the stands. Her son, Kosta, 11, is on the team. Another son, Niko, 13, plays on a Wolverines team in an older division. The Berns family has seen tangible benefits from their boys' participation in youth football. Like all parents, they've also had to consider the risks.
"But they live and breathe football," Sophia said. "There is no other sport."
The Berns family knows there are risks. Niko's team took the field recently with only 12 players. The others had been sidelined by a wrist injury and a torn MCL, among other nicks and bruises. An ambulance was called to a recent practice when one player suffered a minor case of whiplash.
Football has a higher rate of brain injuries than any other youth sport, well ahead of the next closest activities (girls' soccer and ice hockey). According to the Center for Disease Control, bicycling still results in far more emergency room visits than any organized sport.
In more than a quarter-century of coaching, Wilson, 50, has seen youth football grow into a complex entity with a lot of moving parts. Rockville's youth league is run by a board of directors with a large network of volunteers. Its coaches need to obtain seven types of certifications before they can blow a whistle. This fall, for the first time, every parent had to complete a mandatory online course in concussion awareness. And any player showing signs of a concussion can't return to practice without a doctor's note.
Robert Cantu, one of the leading experts in traumatic brain injury, says that safety steps and increased awareness like this is not enough.
Cantu, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine, would like to see tackle football banned for athletes under the age of 14. In addition, he calls for no heading in soccer and no full-body checking in ice hockey at the same age.
"We're not calling for sports to not be played, but to be played with those restrictions," he said. "In the case of tackle football, substitute flag for tackle."
A young person's head, Cantu said, is too vulnerable and no modernized helmet or altered playing rules can fully prevent concussion.
"The youth brain housed in disproportionately big head on a very weak neck, it's a bobblehead doll-effect that increases the injury," said Cantu, who co-authored the recent book, "Concussions and Our Kids."
When Goodell was finished watching the players in Centreville a couple weeks ago, he headed toward the bleachers where parents were armed with questions.
The commissioner knows the challenges — safety concerns and increased interest in other sports, he says, but also the weak economy and the costs associated with football. He urged the parents to ask him anything.
A father wondered how long until the safe tackling program impacts the NFL. "Most of the time, changes in techniques happen from the top-down," Goodell said. "In this case, we believe implementing these techniques and learning these fundamentals at this age are going to help these kids all the way through."
To a mother whose 11-year-old son suffered a concussion the week before: "If any of your children are hurt, whether it's your leg or your head, make sure they're not afraid to raise their hand. That's all, and say, 'I don't feel right.' "
And to a mother whose son seeks out videos of vicious hits on YouTube: "We are not promoting the kinds of hits that were promoted even five years ago, 10 years ago. We're trying to get our partners not to promote those. . . . We have worked very hard to make them understand, 'We are trying to change our culture and you need to be a part of that. You need to make sure you're not glorifying the kinds of hits we're trying to eliminate from our game.' "
Goodell was well received. In the bleachers, Raquel Garfield, listened intently. She has two sons playing in the Fairfax league and another playing freshman ball at Centreville High School. One of her sons had suffered two concussions in elementary school — one on the playground, the other on a scooter — and her pediatrician discouraged him from playing football. Her instincts were buoyed by what she heard.
"Accidents are going to happen," she said. "I'd rather have them doing this than sitting at home on the couch. You can waste your brain sitting on the couch and you can do damage to your character."