Mike Meade is a hulking figure.
Standing in the middle of a sprawling complex swarming with youth football players, he has an air of invincibility – as if every player tried to tackle him simultaneously, they'd still not bring him to the ground.
But Meade, a 1978 Dover High School graduate and former NFL player, was ultimately forced to give up the sport he loved after concussions took their toll over his four-year career.
And while he joined other players in a lawsuit against the NFL for concealing the risks of head trauma, his relationship with the league isn't an adversarial one. Meade is representing the NFL's new Heads Up Football program, a $1.5 million outreach effort designed to help educate youth players and coaches about player safety and the perils of head injuries.
On Oct. 3, Meade paid a visit to the MOT Youth Football & Cheerleading League practice in Middletown to meet with players and coaches. Meade, who will attend games and practices throughout the season, will work with players and coaches on five core elements of the Heads Up program:
- Proper tackling techniques
- Coaching certifications
- Encouraging player-safety monitoring
- Concussion education
- Proper equipment fitting
Meade remembers his first concussion quite vividly, considering the head trauma he suffered on that Monday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"[Tampa Bay linebacker] Hugh Green – my old nemesis from [the University of Pittsburgh] was hitting me all night and he finally got me," Meade recalled. "I remember being on the sideline and I was looking up at the crowd and wondering 'how come all these people are here and why are they wearing orange?' But then I got a quick test from a trainer – not a doctor – and they sent me right back out."
But it wasn't just his personal experiences that got him involved in the Heads Up Program. He recalled attending a football practice in Dover a few years ago and "observed some really bad advice a coach was giving to a kid."
That's when he knew he wanted to get involved.
Meade spent about an hour going from field to field at MOT's sprawling complex off Silver Lake Road, engaging young players in friendly banter, but also imploring them to listen to their coaches, practice proper tackling techniques and keep themselves safe.
Meade said that for the sport of football to survive, children and parents have to believe it is safe.
"This is a great game and it really prepares you for life, but if a kid has a bad experience early or gets hurt, they're likely to give up on the sport and go play something else," Meade said. "This program is about keeping kids safe and getting them to develop good habits early, but it's also about preserving and growing the popularity of the game."
Page 2 of 2 - Ken Anderson, president of MOTYFCL, said coaches were being educated as well. Earlier this year, Anderson and a group of his coaches attended a concussion-awareness clinic at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where they received certification from USA Football and the Heads Up program.
"The culture of football has changed," Anderson said. "When I played it was all about being to take – and dishing out – the big hit. But that's changed and it's all about just making the tackle.
"This is a great game and it can be played safely, and we want to promote that."