Sniffing out a swing pass coming from the backfield, Husker cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste lowered his head and hit the Purdue running back high, sending both football and player flying.
The Husker immediately posed and flexed his muscles in celebration of the big hit — the kind that has helped make football such a savage and popular spectacle.
But then something else came flying — a yellow flag. And Jean-Baptiste became the first player in Big Ten Conference history ejected under a new, stricter NCAA rule intended to curtail contact to the head.
Many fans decried the call on that October hit, one that likely wouldn't have even drawn a penalty, let alone an ejection, under the game's rules six years earlier. Others questioned whether there had even been much contact to the Purdue player's head.
But Dr. Brian Hainline, the chief medical officer for the NCAA, knows this: If players continue to get kicked out of games on such plays, they'll learn to start aiming lower, taking extra care to avoid unnecessary head contact.
“When a player gets ejected,'' Hainline said, “believe me, that leads to behavior change.''
Jean-Baptiste's ejection became part of the recent drive to bring about a major “culture change'' in football, one that Hainline, other football officials and some of the nation's top scientists say the game must undergo in the face of its concussion crisis. One of the central tenets of that new culture: zero tolerance for unnecessary and avoidable contact to the head.
|CONCUSSIONS: A GAME CHANGER|
|Read all the previous installments from Henry Cordes's series at Omaha.com/concussions.|
The new culture of football emphasizes tackling with good technique rather than trying to “blow up'' an opponent. And it attempts to reset fans' expectations, seeking to balance their love of the highlight reel hit with more empathy for the health of the millions of boys and young men who play the game.
Football's culture change has been underway for a while, with new rules and the strict enforcement of existing ones aimed at getting gratuitous head contact out of the game, as well as a more serious attitude toward concussions and their treatment.
But more change is coming. It's very likely that more rules will be aimed at protecting players. Practices of the future are likely to involve less hitting. And education efforts will be increased to make sure young players and their parents understand that a concussion is not an injury you can just shake off.
It may seem a contradiction: an inherently brutal sport suddenly so focused on the safety of its players. Many fans have been critical of the changes, which they say rob football of its toughness, making the tackle game more like flag football.
“Disgusting,'' one Husker fan wrote on a Big Ten website in the wake of Jean-Baptiste's ejection. “I miss football.”
Those calling for reform, however, say it's an exaggeration to suggest that football's rugged ethos will be somehow lost by taking unnecessary head shots out of the game.
“You're never going to make it 100 percent safe — it's a violent sport,'' said Chris Bober, an Omaha native who played for eight years in the National Football League. “But you can be just as devastating with a clean hit as with a helmet blow.”
Bober and others advocating culture change also say there is more that critics need to understand: If football doesn't change, it's possible there will be no more football. That could happen if parents one day decide the game is just too dangerous for their kids.
“The state of the game is pretty sensitive right now,” Bober said. “It has to change.”
While some see hope for reducing concussions with better equipment or medical advances, Hainline said nothing would go further toward protecting the brains of young players than changing football's culture, at all levels of the game.
He sees it as a public health issue, likening what's needed to the dramatic shifts in public attitudes seen in previous decades toward smoking, or drinking and driving.
“Football is not boxing,'' Hainline said in an interview this fall. The object of football has never been to knock your opponent out of the game, he said.
The National Academy of Sciences, the scientific policy adviser to the U.S. government, issued a report in October calling for a culture change surrounding football and concussions.
Tracey Covassin, a Michigan State University trainer who helped craft the academy report, noted that a decade ago, football reformed a culture that embraced practicing in stifling summer heat, with some coaches even withholding water breaks to punish or “toughen'' players. In the face of a rash of heat-related deaths and illnesses, preseason practices were revamped to avoid heat exposure.
“We have to have that same type of change,'' Covassin said of concussions. “We've made some changes. But we're not there yet.''
For the new culture to take hold, it must start at the lowest levels of youth football.
To that end, the NFL and USA Football, the sport's national governing body, in the past year have launched Heads Up Football. The initiative aims to teach youth football coaches and players proper tackling techniques and concussion management.
In all, more than 2,800 youth leagues, including 90,000 coaches and 600,000 players, have registered for the program.
Bober, a standout lineman at South High and the University of Nebraska at Omaha before playing professionally, serves as a local ambassador for Heads Up Football, attending youth football events and promoting its teachings.
As the name implies, one of the basics of Heads Up Football is teaching kids to tackle with their heads up. That's a sure way to make certain they aren't leading with the helmet, which endangers their opponent and subjects their own head to contact. Players are taught to keep their eyes on the target all the way through, lead with the shoulder and wrap up with their arms.
One of the biggest problems in upper levels of football is that players have gotten away from such good technique, Bober said, often hurling themselves headlong at opponents in an effort to knock them off their feet.
“You are not a missile launched in hopes of knocking them over,'' Bober tells young players. “You tackle them.''
For players who already have bad tackling habits, the rules are the key to removing avoidable head contact from the game. That's why college football is ejecting players and why the NFL is levying big fines for non-incidental contact to the head and other dangerous play.
The NCAA passed a rule in 2008 against targeting, defined as leading with the crown of the helmet on a tackle or making a hit above the shoulders against a “defenseless player'' — for example, a receiver who's concentrating on catching the ball.
To ramp up the seriousness of the offense, as of this year a targeting flag now comes with an automatic ejection.
Bober, who saw the Jean-Baptiste ejection for targeting, said it was “absolutely the right call.'' He even got on social media to defend it. The Husker clearly led with his head. If he had kept his head up and wrapped up on the play, he almost surely would have avoided a penalty and ejection, Bober said.
“He is going to be a first-round draft pick” in the NFL, Bober said. “He absolutely has the ability to wrap the guy up and make a tackle rather than hitting him with the crown of his helmet.''
Though high school football has had rules for years against leading with the head, the game's national governing body will consider a proposal early next year that would create a specific targeting penalty, similar to that in college.
Another recent point of emphasis at all levels: cracking down on unnecessary hits away from the play, particularly against unsuspecting players.
“Big hits and physical play have always been part of football,'' said Nate Neuhaus, assistant director of the Nebraska School Activities Association. “But if it's behind the play and malicious and doesn't need to take place, it should draw a flag.''
It's difficult to tell whether enforcement of such rules is cutting down on concussions. But such rules may already be changing behavior.
This season, targeting calls in college football are down slightly over the previous year. Bober said he's seeing improved tackling technique, too.
Another focus in recent years has been trying to reduce the number of kickoffs — plays that produce some of the sport's most high-speed and violent collisions.
Since 2011, both the NFL and college football have moved kickoffs up five yards to produce more touchbacks on kicks into the end zone.
The result: fewer returned kicks and corresponding reductions in concussions. High school football's governing body will soon consider a proposal to limit the running starts that players can get on kickoffs.
What could the game's future rules look like?
Some have talked about getting rid of kickoffs altogether, or even eliminating the three-point stance for linemen — a posture intended to give them leverage, but which promotes helmet-to-helmet clashes in the trenches.
It remains to be seen whether the changes will be enough to save football. Parents will ultimately decide whether their kids play football, which will determine the game's fate.
Bober said he is sometimes asked whether he'll allow his young son to play.
His answer: Absolutely. However, Bober said, he'll also be making sure his son is being taught to play in the safest manner possible.
“The values you learn in being on a team and the ups and downs of competition far outweigh the safety concern, if it's taught the proper way,'' he said.
“The game is getting safer. I know we're headed in a positive direction.''