Randall Gay won Super Bowl rings with both the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots. He also was a key contributor to the national championship football team at LSU in 2003.
But on Saturday, Gay was a spectator in a cluster of more than 75 coaches who were taking part in the USA Football Heads Up Player Safety Camp. The event was at Saints Camp off Airline Drive in Jefferson Parish — a familiar spot to Gay, when he played in the defensive backfield for the Saints.
On this particular day, Gay wasn’t making (or taking) hits, though. He was on site as a coach and administrator of the Brusly Recreation Department Panthers football team. Gay, now 33 and preparing to take his Law School Admission Test next week to practice law, is one of a growing number of youth league and high school coaches who are joining forces with USA Football to better ensure the safety of players of all ages throughout the world.
They focus on proper tackling and blocking, on hydration, on proper equipment fitting, on injury and cardiac care protocols and much more.
The USA Football organization has worked with thousands of youth recreation groups and as many high school teams across the world in recent years. The Heads Up program is an attempt to bring safety skills to all levels of football, and the camps began three years ago.
The attention to detail is a far cry from what Gay remembers receiving while he was growing up as a player on the fields around the Baton Rouge area. He remembers when stopping to take a water break (even during his college days at LSU) might have been seen as weakness among the world of tough football athletes and their coaches.
“This raises the credibility of youth football, for really young kids, and for high school kids,” Gay said. “The coaches who coached you way back when were doing it from the good of their heart. But most of them were doing it from what they saw on TV.
“Now, these coaches here go through training, they get certified, they know what to look for. It’s more steps, but it’s best for football in general.”
Former Hahnville football coach Lou Valdin agreed. Though he retired from the school system in 2013, he didn’t go far from the game. He became at USA Football Master Trainer last year, and this was his first attempt at leading a camp with other area youth and high school coaches. Assisting him was Austin, Texas-based Chad Hester, a regional master trainer for the program. They had several other assistants helping them, including former Saints player Michael Lewis.
The New Orleans Saints sponsored Saturday’s program. All involved attended a morning of instructional time before breaking for lunch, and then went into the Saints indoors facility to witness hands-on displays of the techniques and fundamentals preached in the classroom earlier in the day.
“You see these guys who played ball in the 1960s and 1970s, and their play brought a lot of attention to the concussion issues (in later years),” Valdin said. “Now, the biggest thing is improving equipment, coming forward on concussions and bringing education to it all. USA Football … is designed to make the game safer and better … for everyone.”
Lewis wholeheartedly agreed.
“When we were coming up, you got what you could get at the park here in town,” he said. “You didn’t have people around to size you (properly for equipment.) Those coaches did the best they could. But now, it’s been taken to an extreme to make sure the kids can fit properly into a real helmet, into their shoulder pads. It means a lot. … We didn’t have all the technology back then that we do right now.”
The USA Football Heads Up Program is funded through a multimillion dollar donation from the NFL, as well as sponsorships through ESPN, Riddell and others. USA Football is a 501(c)3 company and aims to bring awareness to safe football coaching and playing techniques at all levels of the game.
“A lot of times, (coaches on all levels) don’t recognize that (leading with the head, etc.) isn’t really a hit that you want your player to make,” Hester said. “I always say, ‘better, not softer.’
“We’re not taking anything anyway; we’re just making it safer.”