Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hitting Isn't Good Tackling

Walters Delivers
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
As a fan of high school football, I was disturbed upon reading a recent sports feature in my local hometown newspaper (The Powell Tribune) about the Powell High School football program titled "Natural Born Hitters." In short, the article featured six players from the high school team and discussed their ability and hunger to "hit." The following is my response to the "Natural Born Hitters" story.

Hitting (i.e. a purposeful violent tackle or collision) does not personify nor define the game of football anymore than the cumulative GPA of a football team. It is only a small part—in fact a by-product of sorts—and certainly should not be glorified nor the focal point of the game as this story so sadly portrays.

This story has somehow confused good tackling with this thing called hitting which doesn't necessarily result in a successful tackle. I've seen plenty of mediocre teams over the years with their proclaimed hard hitters, but the brilliant teams are those where every player is running to the ball right up to the whistle instead of walking down field while one of their teammates attempts to make a "vicious hit." With three or more defenders on the ball carrier, a successful tackle is much more likely.

Of all attributes found in the game of gridiron football, I wondered why hitting was highlighted in this particular story. Whatever happened to the character building that should take place via the principles of a strong work ethic, sportsmanship, creative play selection or teamwork? It was always my understanding that to participate in any sport was to become a better person. How are we helping to build character in a young man if we validate a behavior where he "imagines the punishment he can deliver?" What kind of thumbless mentality are we perpetuating here?

Although quite physical, football is also a game of strategy, finesse and proper execution of any given play that is called. It doesn't have to be smash-mouth with the intention of humiliating one's opponent or "wrecking one's spirit and determination." Those teams who aspire only to play smash-mouth football are typically one-dimensional and unimaginative. Eventually their assorted weaknesses are discovered and exploited leading to their defeat.

Reading through the story I couldn't help but think of the smack-based talk associated with the WWE ("professional" wrestling). I will even venture to say that perhaps those who find hitting to be such a great attribute in football might also be the same who attend a NASCAR event hoping they'll witness a brutal crash.

I can only imagine the non-football fans in the area reading "Natural Born Hitters" and finding even more distaste for a game that they believe is oozing with testosterone. I can't blame them.

As memorable as "big hits" might be, Chuck Bednarik's hit on Frank Gifford in 1960 (at best) only helped to seal the Eagles victory over the Giants while Jack Tatum's 1978 hit on Darryl Stingley was during a preseason contest. Such "bone-jarring hits" typically are more poignant in ending careers rather than winning football games as was the case in these two famous hits. Sadly, Bednarik is better known for his hit on Gifford rather than his place in the Hall of Fame or his role as the last of the Sixty-Minute Men (those who played both offense and defense).

It's a fine line between wanting to deliver a vicious hit and wanting to injure one's opponent. I have yet to learn of any football player who is capable of controlling their power and velocity of any given tackle/hit to insure that only the former results. Coaches and fans need to be thoughtful in the kind of encouragement we pass on to these young and impressionable players.

Everyone knows that any game/sport as physical as football has always been prone to a higher injury rate than those that are less physical. As I see it, the "Natural Born Hitters" story only endorses a style of play that increases the likelihood of injury. And that's just irresponsible.

Finally, we should keep in mind that just because a football player is considered a hard hitter doesn't mean the impact of their hit is totally absorbed by the individual in their crosshairs. Many of the game's best hitters leave the game before their time due to injuries associated with their overly-aggressive style of play.