It's no secret the Sonora Wildcats like to play a hard-nosed, physical brand of football. That style won't change this season under sixth-year head coach Bryan Craig.
What will change, is that Craig will know exactly what kind of helmet impact some of his Wildcats are delivering, or taking, and can take steps accordingly to protect them. When it comes to concussions and his players well-being, Craig wants to stay ahead of the curve.
"We know for this game to continue, to be what it is, we have to get that head out of the game and we have to protect the players better," Craig said. "We have to get concussions out of the game or we won't have football. So we're trying to get out front and lead that charge."
Craig heard about some helmet sensors a Modesto-based school was going to try and thought it sounded like a good idea. He called his Riddell sales rep, got the scoop about the sensors and decided he would buy 12 on a tryout basis.
The sensors are buried deep in the padding at the top of the helmet and send a signal to Craig through a hand-held device when a big hit is registered.
"This device will let me know what kid took the impact, his name and jersey number," Craig said. "In that case, we'll immediately remove him from the field and get him baseline tested," which is a 40-minute memory and cognitive skills test players take before the season and are compared to results after head trauma. Any deficiencies and the player does not return to the field.
The sensors are not just for game day. The impact measurements are gathered for a seven-day period, before it refreshes and starts again, which could be a valuable teaching tool.
"In the analogy I got from my rep, he said, 'You take an empty water bottle and you fill it a little after every hit and you keep doing that until it gets to the top,' " Craig said. "And within that seven days, if it gets to the top, the next hit will set off the monitor which basically means we've got a kid getting his head involved in too many tackles so we can check him and his tackling techniques."
The sensors were around $150 each, paid for out and will be strategically placed.
"I tried to spread it out so that each position had at least one guy wearing the sensor," Craig said.
Craig hasn't stopped at just the sensors. He has his coaches at all levels go through the NFL Heads Up training program, which is not required by the CIF or school district, but is to get better educated at recognizing concussions and protecting the players.
"One of the reason we did the heads up training is that we're trying to get the head out just like the NFL is doing," Craig said. "Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks head coach) has a great video of how he teaches shoulder tackling. We've gone through all that heads up training, because that's where this is going and we want to be ahead of that curve. We want to be that team that's ahead of everybody else."
But what happens late in the game, the Wildcats are down by five points and are marching for the winning score with just seconds left and the monitor goes off and says your star player just took a big hit. He's not acting like anything is wrong and wants to stay in the game, is there any conflict?
"Not for me," Craig said. "A lot of coaches are probably afraid of it. They're afraid, like you said, it's going to go off, and they'd have to maybe take out their star player in the fourth quarter of a close game. If it goes off, you have to take them out. There's no conflict with me. I put player safety first. We're physical and we like to go out and hit people, but that's why we're doing this. I want to protect my players more than win a football game."