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By: John Millea
Football Is Growing, With The St. Agnes Aggies At The Forefront
The game of football has come under criticism in recent years due to concerns about safety. The scales, however, are tipping in the other direction at some Minnesota schools, and St. Agnes ' a small Catholic school in St. Paul ' is at the epicenter of footballandapos;s resurgence.
Before this season, the Aggies never had more than 33 players. But in 2019 there are 54 kids on the roster and the Aggies will take a record of 6-1 and No. 9 ranking in Class 2A into Wednesdayandapos;s regular-season finale against St. Paul Harding. The reasons are many, but the main impetus is extra equipment being used by football players before they even get to high school.
A device called Tackle Bar is worn by football players in fifth through eighth grade at St. Agnes (which has fewer than 800 students in preschool through 12th grade). As explained on tacklebar.com: andquot;Players wear traditional football equipment, plus a Tackle Bar harness that holds two foam bars across the lower back. The defender must track and engage with proper form tackling technique while wrapping the ball carrier and ripping a bar from the harness. With this approach, players stay on their feet rather than taking the ball carrier to the ground.andquot;
Tackle Bar, which is sometimes referred to as a transition between flag football and full contact football, has partnerships with the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Football Coaches Association. It was invented by St. Paul parents Brigid and Jeremy Ling three years ago and is spreading across the country.
St. Agnes has a Tackle Bar team for fifth- and sixth-graders and another for seventh- and eighth-graders; they play in leagues that also include teams from St. Anthony, St. Paul Academy, Minnehaha Academy, Providence Academy, Blake and Breck.
andquot;Everyone told me it wasnandapos;t going to work, that we had to play real football,' said St. Agnes athletic director Mike Streitz. 'Even our coach said that. Safety can be a fear at a small school with a lot of small kids, and we figured we had to find a way to convince families and kids that football is safe. Tackle Bar football was that; it got guys to enjoy the experience.'
Aggies coach Tom Flood admits that he was indeed skeptical of Tackle Bar.
'Because of the rules; no blocking to the ground, ball carriers can't lower their shoulder, those kinds of things, I was like, 'Well, then they're not teaching kids to defend themselves,' ' Flood said after St. Agnes defeated Academy Force 28-0 on Friday night. 'But as you watch the numbers in football continue to dwindle, we've got to look at alternatives and Tackle Bar has been a great alternative for us. And as I really started looking at it, they've got their helmets and shoulder pads on and they're learning to carry the equipment. And it keeps them safe.'
St. Agnes players have been involved in Tackle Bar league since 2016. When Streitz was ordering new varsity football uniforms for this season, he initially thought 50 would be enough. Now he's glad he ordered 60 uniforms.
'Convincing parents that football is safe was a big thing,' Streitz said. 'It's been a great experience.'
St. Agnes won six games in 2015, four games in each of the next two seasons, and went 7-4 last season, losing to Minneapolis North in the Class 2A Section 2 championship game.
'The biggest thing (about Tackle Bar) is I watched my own son who wanted to play football and really I didn't want to let him, he was small,' said Flood, whose sons Caleb (sophomore) and Cegan (eighth grade) play for the Aggies. 'They're just not strong enough to control the helmet, going to the ground. Most of the concussions were from heads banging off the ground, it's not from someone hitting them. And so as their necks are getting stronger as they get older, to junior high and freshman year, they can carry that helmet properly and not have their head go slamming off the ground, just when they get knocked down. I really started doing a lot of reading up on concussions and whatnot; it's from the weakness of the neck bouncing. Tackle Bar takes care of a lot of that.'
In a study by researchers at the University of Minnesota that followed nearly 1,000 football players from 56 teams through nearly 16,000 practices and games, the Tackle Bar injury rate was more than seven times lower than in full-contact football, with no concussions or other head injuries.
'I think football is one of the best sports there is to teach young men character,' Flood said. 'And if we want it to live, we've got to make the adjustments. It's been a huge resurgence for St. Agnes because once these kids start playing from fourth, fifth, sixth grade, their folks aren't going to look at them in ninth grade and say, 'No, you can't keep playing.' You want to play with your buddies. And that's what it's about. So it's been great for us.'
--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea' wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.