Shatel: Rules to improve player safety aren’t making football softer — they’re making it smarter

Mike Riley went through Bear Bryant’s notoriously brutal two-a-days as a player at Alabama. Riley said there’s no reason for that much conditioning in today’s game. “These guys have been running wind sprints since January.”

LINCOLN — Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys had a book and movie made about them.

The Bear’s Bama Boys were lucky to get water.

This was decades ago, when players practiced twice a day in blistering August heat, when pain or injury was viewed as a sign of weakness.

“They were hard,” says Nebraska coach Mike Riley, one of Bear’s Bama Boys. “Especially when you were young.

“Freshmen weren’t even eligible, so it was all about finding how much you wanted to be there. We went every day at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. There were no night practices.

“It wasn’t like water was available all the time. They’d give you a water break a couple of times.”

Riley said the Bama Boys would go through 20 days of two-a-days. They were meant to get the team in shape. Build toughness. Character. Team bonding.

Those who couldn’t cut it snuck off in the night for the bus station. There was glory in survival. You were part of a club.

This ideal was romanticized in the 1960s by books such as “Instant Replay” and the movie “Paper Lion” and in recent years by the “Junction Boys” — the story of Bryant taking his first Texas A&M team off campus for a series of brutal practices.

NFL teams still hold training camps off site, on smaller college campuses where players bunk in tiny dorm rooms and bond away from big city distractions.

But the romance of summer football training is going away. Reality is here, like a scorching August afternoon.

In 2017, two-a-day practices have been outlawed in college football. The NCAA Division I Council took them away last spring.

The Council ruled that a single day can now include one three-hour practice session and a walkthrough. In the walkthrough, helmets and pads can’t be worn and no contact is allowed. Also, there can be no conditioning in a walkthrough.

Also, three hours of recovery is required between a practice and a walkthrough.

The Bear, Vince Lombardi and Alex Karras are all rolling over in Football Heaven.

This is the direction football is headed, and it’s the right direction. Football — the old football — is going to have to adjust.

It doesn’t have a choice.

A study by a neuropathologist recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed some stunning data. Dr. Ann McKee studied the brains of 111 NFL players and found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 110.

The stories of depression, memory loss and dementia in aging football players aren’t going away. If anything, they seem to be multiplying.

There’s a movement to shine a light on football’s CTE problem and make the game safer. But there’s still an old-school machismo, embodied in New York Jets rookie Jamal Adams recently saying, “Literally, if I had the perfect place to die, I’d die on the field.”

That’s the macho of football talking. The macho struggles with the reality, that many parents are steering their sons away from the game.

The game of football needs to save itself. Will taking away two-a-days help?

It’s a start. The good news is, many schools have slowly done away with the dual-practices. Over the years of scholarship limits and decreased roster sizes, they’ve done it in the name of keeping legs fresh.

And let’s not forget that college football has also become a summer sport.

“These guys have been training all year,” Riley said. “We used to go home in the summer and Coach Bryant would write you a letter saying, ‘Make sure you come back in shape.’

“Then, you’d run a lot of wind sprints, do a lot of stuff. These guys have been running wind sprints since January.”

And yet, the NCAA may have traded a physical test for a mental test. And that’s what has many coaches upset about no two-a-days.

Not with the safety part. They’re on board with that.

But in doing away with two-a-days, teams had to get their allowed 29 practices in the same amount of time. Which is why practice began this year in July.

For instance, Nebraska had four two-a-day practices last year. Which is why NU started four days earlier this summer.

“In order to get 29 practices in we have got to move back into April almost,” said K-State coach Bill Snyder.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz joked that with five weeks of practice instead of four, he’d have to come up with some good stories to keep his players interested.

July does seem early for college football. But let’s not pretend that these players haven’t been on campus all summer (the NCAA allows eight weeks) for strength and conditioning. Why not cut back on that and let the players keep in shape at home?

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald offered this compromise last week at Big Ten media days: Make any two-a-day practices include one physical practice followed by one with no contact.

Sounds like a plan.

The sport of football needs a plan. It needs to be smarter. And additions such as the new helmets purchased for the Omaha Public Schools teams are steps in the right direction.

Football has to walk a fine line between old school and new school. To survive, it may have to do without two-a-days and brutal camps. But also, teach safer tackling techniques.

“It’s 2017,” said NU defensive line coach John Parrella, a member of the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame and a 12-year NFL veteran.

“They’ve done a million studies on safety and players. It won’t affect us. There’s a lot of good in (practicing) both ways. The way we’re doing it will be very beneficial to this team.”

Asked for his opinion on the CTE studies, Parrella said, “I’d rather not comment on it, out of respect for the other guys in the NFL. The important thing is the NFL take care of their players, that’s first and foremost.”

But asked about fathers pulling their sons from football, Papa Bear Parrella sounded off.

“I just saw a study that there was zero evidence of any (CTE) impact in high school,” Parrella said. “I have four sons. Two are playing college football, one is playing college rugby and one is in high school.

“Everything’s bad for you. Ten years later, everything’s good for you. The character, the discipline, the camaraderie, structural development — there’s no better game in the world for a 15-year-old boy to play.”

Amen, Big John. Now let’s make sure we keep it that way., 402-444-1025,

Will eliminating two-a-days help make college football safer?

The NCAA Division I Council in April voted to end the practice of full contact two-a-day practices — be it in training camp or in spring camp. Teams rarely used them in spring, but, for some programs, they were still a hallmark in fall camps. Will this move help make college football safer?

You voted:

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.