As the anticipation of returning to the classroom has passed, the Friday night football frenzy spreads among the high school coaches, players, and their families. The summer training has been completed, and now these athletes are stronger, faster, and ready to hit the field. But how has high school football changed over the years?
"I started coaching in 1969," said J.T. Curtis, Head Football Coach for John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge. "Through the years, there have been different fads in football. But the fundamentals of the game have not changed, and the fundamentals of the player have not changed."
During his long career as a high school football coach, Curtis has definitively determined that the four basic fundamental principles of football-blocking, tackling, enthusiasm, and aggressiveness of play-remain prevalent today. "The blocking and tackling fundamentals are key to success in any level of football," said Curtis. "I think the game will change from fad to fad, like the formation, the spread offense, and wishbone, which have evolved the game of football."
Curtis gave an example of a recent trend in the spread offense called Run-Pass-Option (RPO). "It is an interesting concept and part of the business, so you adapt your scheme to meet that," added Curtis. "But the fundamentals of the player have not changed, including the discipline, academic, spiritual, and athletic development of your player. All these attributes need to be present for the player. And players want to have these qualities in their coach."
Another interesting perspective about the transformation of the game of football was highlighted by Mark Bonis, Head Coach at Brother Martin High School on Elysian Fields, when he opined, "I think football has changed because there was an attack on the sport with the early concussion scare. There was a fear of football and a lot of misinformation about concussions in the sport. Now, we have bigger safety protocols to make sure the players are hydrated; concussions are checked for the athlete's safety."
Since the aughts, there has been a growing uneasiness about the safety and long-term impact on the brain brought on by football tackles. Some local high school football players, such as the Brother Martin High School team, now use helmets with data-collecting chips to determine the intensity a blow to the head during a football game. "We have chips in our helmets," said Bonis, who is entering his tenth year as the Crusader's head coach. "Players who take repeated contact to the head, like offensive [linemen], defensive linemen, linebackers, and running backs wear these helmets."
According to Bonis, a few of the positive modifications in high school football are due to the efficiency of the coaches and increasing overall awareness of proper nutrition, as well as strength and conditioning. "I think to be successful in football, you must be mentally tough and physically tough," said Bonis. "Football is a sport that you train all-year round. And there's more concentration on eating right, watching your weight, and working out with weights. Athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster because of the year-round training model which has bled into other sports. Now, every sport wants their athlete to get into the weight room."
For Jay Roth, who had recently stepped down as the Head Football Coach for Archbishop Rummel High School, the game of football has evolved into a vehicle to reach the collegiate and professional level. "Times have changed in my 33 years as a football coach," said Roth, who spent 24 years of his coaching career as head coach of his alma mater, Archbishop Rummel High School. "Nowadays, the player is more sport-specific. Every kid has a dream of playing in college, and every parent has an idea that their child will go to the NFL or play college ball. Back in the day, we played for our high school and to be with our friends. These kids need to master the high school football part, achieve, and do well."
An important aspect of his high school football program during Roth's coaching career was to know when to give the athletes time to rest. "I believe that a coach can be effective working with the players 3 days per week and, then, give the athletes time to rest and recover. A lot of times you hear that some coaches and other hired trainers are training these kids 7 days per week, and these kids are just wearing themselves out. Everyone always thinks
'more is better.'"
Widely recognized as a legendary Louisiana coach, Roth has been touted as the "winningest coach in the history of the New Orleans Catholic League," with career stats of 228-62, winning nearly 79 percent of his games in the 24 seasons at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie. "The high school training program now develops the whole player, working on his agility, speed, and strength. Even in seventh grade, these kids are doing drills like what you see an NFL player would do. And they generally give up their second sport. Now, coaches are looking for how high can you jump, how much can you lift, and how well you play ball."
At the Crusader's training facility in Gentilly, Bonis is a strong proponent of competition and encourages his athletes to play other sports. "I think it's good to have a multi-sport athlete," he said. "I would say 70-80 percent of our guys play other sports because it is better for the athlete as a sportsman, and he learns how to compete in life. I feel like to be successful in life, you should compete and finish it."
In agreement with that sentiment, Curtis pointed out that high school athletes who crossover and play different sports generally have a better foundation and greatly benefit from skills acquired from other sports. "Specialization is a part of the evolution of football," said Curtis, "[w]hereas, I think there are benefits to an athlete playing multiple sports, particularly when they're young. For example, if you play basketball and tennis, you acquire skills like hand/eye movement and [the] ability to change directions quickly. Besides, you want young people to look forward to playing games."
Notably, Curtis indicated that the game of football, especially for the players, has been affected by social media. "Today, with social media, the attention to players is much more out there. What they say and what they do is put on social media, which is spread all over the world," Curtis added. "It is a distraction for the players, so the players need to learn what they say matters and how they say it matters."
While preparing their athletes for a successful football season, more awareness for improvements in training, proper nutrition, and safety have expanded the game of football. Motivation on the field and in the weight room for these football players is an underlying theme amongst these high school coaches. Bonis shared his tough talk with the players. "My creed on the field and in the weight room is make sure you establish a sense of urgency to get it done and ask, 'What's your purpose?' Control the controllable and ignore the noise. That way you always do your very best."