Former lineman Roman Oben, now the NFL's director of youth football, on growing the game amid health and safety concerns, answering critics regarding the sport's controversial past and why he decided to let his two sons play
NEW YORK, N.Y. — For 12 seasons, Roman Oben was an NFL offensive lineman. Now, he’s in the trenches of an issue central to the future of football—the game’s youth ranks. Oben was hired in January as the NFL’s director of youth football, a position newly created during a time in which some parents, and some former players, are saying they won’t let their kids play football because of health and safety concerns. Youth and high school football participation levels began to drop in the late 2000s, though the National Federation of State High School Associations reported its first rise in football participation in five years for the 2013-14 school year. What’s the future of the game? That depends, in large part, on what happens at the youth level. The MMQB sat down with Oben, also a dad to two football-playing sons, ages 13 and 11, about his view from the front seat with the game at an important crossroads.
VRENTAS: Why does the NFL need to have a director of youth football?
OBEN: My view walking into this position was, we don’t need to keep apologizing for football, because there are a lot of people who believe in this game for the values that it imparts. You look at the youth participation numbers that have dropped, but they have dropped for a lot of different reasons. The sedentary nature of kids now. The multiple options now in terms of what kids do for activities. And a lot of different numbers for youth sports have dropped—basketball and baseball have also dropped. The rising sports have been lacrosse and hockey, but those are such a small number nationwide. It’s not so much about numbers, but for me, making sure parents are educated properly. If your kid should or shouldn’t play, it’s a family decision and not what an NFL player tells you. Not every kid is not going to be 6-foot-1 like my 13-year-old is. Youth football is now a more emphasized pillar (of the NFL). There are great initiatives—Play 60; Punt, pass and kick; NFL Flag—but they have to all be congruent and help increase participation.
VRENTAS: As a former player, do you feel like you are often put in a position where you have to apologize for football?
OBEN: I’m 42. I was 10 years old in 1982. The good thing is, this isn’t 1982. You cant slap kids on the head, or do all those things that I went through. Football is saf-er. Things are bett-er. People are more educated. That is true. People tend to denounce the whole machine because of 30 years ago when there weren’t some of these rules in place. In that regard, no, I don’t think you should apologize for football. Everyone that I meet, at the gym or wherever, they ask, “What do you do?" and when I tell them, they say, “Oh, those concussions.” You have to listen to them. But for the football community, the values it imparts, they still believe in those values. I’m glad that (all 50) states are on board with mandating health rules and their own concussion policies. A lot of school districts, you have to take ImPACT testing. We all have to be educated.
VRENTAS: Can the game grow amid health and safety concerns? What role does the NFL play in that?
OBEN: We need to continue to galvanize the youth and high school football community for the reason that you play. It is always about the “why.” You look at the high school landscape. There are a lot of other issues. The numbers started dropping in 2008. What happened in 2008 with the economy? There are high schools around the country that cannot field a freshman football team. If you don’t play your freshman year, you’re not going to be able to play your junior year. That alone will drop the numbers. But by the time you get to age 14, you know if you want to be a football player, and so that group is still strong. You used to see 60 kids on a sideline; now you might only see 35, but you still have the right amount of people who believe in what football does. You have coaches, kids going to colleges and playing and earning scholarships, National Signing Day.
VRENTAS: How did you introduce your sons to the game of football? Did you have any concerns?
OBEN: My older son was born in 2001, and I think an hour after I cut the cord, I said, OK, Linda, he’ll start playing tackle in seventh grade. She said, OK, I’m tired. When you know your kid is going to be tall and lanky—he wears a size 14 shoe—it’s more a motor skill thing. My younger son started playing in fifth grade. This is my own personal decision, and by no means am I advising. You cannot mandate when a kid should start playing. It has to be based on your area, your landscape, your dynamics. I remember talking to Mike Holmgren at the Hall of Fame two years ago about the practice rules in the NFL. He said, you know, in the 80s, we were just trying to do it the way the 49ers did it. Scripting practice, standardizing the rules, only hitting two days a week. Because what Bill Walsh was doing, and what Don Shula was doing in Miami, and what Landry was doing in Texas, and what Ditka and Parcells were doing, were all different models. And everyone chased whatever model was winning. It’s funny, 30 years later, that we’re having this discussion at the youth level. USA Football just came out last week with standardized practice guidelines (a 30-minute time limit on full contact within a practice session). The state of New Jersey has instituted a limit on live hitting during the week. It was in the 80s when the NFL had that discussion, and now we’re talking about the youths and the high schools. We have gotten smarter to start that discussion earlier. And then that creates a safer player, a more educated parent and a better game overall going forward.
I held (my kids) out of football (at first) because I needed to trust that process. Based on where we lived at the time, and my schedule was grueling, and if I couldn’t make sure that they were being coached properly, I wasn’t doing it. I had to properly educate myself on what kids are learning now. I’m not going to call up Marty Schottenheimer or Norv Turner or Coach Coughlin about youth football. But it is funny, my kids have met Tom Coughlin, and he says, “Make sure you stay low,” and I say, see, I told you the same thing. You want to make sure. It had to be done the right way. Trust me, they begged me every year, and I said, we’ll wait, we’ll wait. Now, I am the parent safety coach for our team, and I am assistant commissioner of the league. I am out there measuring equipment, and your thumb is sore from fitting everyone’s helmet.
VRENTAS: Before you were hired as the NFL’s director of youth football, you ran flag football fundamentals clinics all over New Jersey. Were you trying to offer a safer option for kids to enter the game?
OBEN: I was trying to solve the participation issues in 2011, long before I came into this office. How do you improve the experience? Running through cones. Tagging each other. Being a part of a team. Always having a word of the day at the end of the camp. Attitude. Concentration. Effort. Focus. Teamwork. We partnered with 30 communities to run some form of a camp. I did an educational camp for the city of Newark two years ago. They only had six programs in Newark that do high school football, so I did a leadership camp for all of them. We brought in concussion testing. We brought in speakers. It wasn’t even a football camp. They were all bummed out. We said, Oh, we fooled you, it’s a leadership camp. That was always my passion, to try to approach the youth football landscape, from a place of how do you maximize that experience and walk away feeling better at the end of it?
VRENTAS: When parents, at the gym or wherever else, ask you why they should let their kids play football, what do you say?
OBEN: I say, listen, I know my boys will be 6-5, 200-something in high school. The average person has to make a decision based on them. I challenge parents to make sure they are educating themselves and using national governing bodies like USA Football to do that. The Heads Up initiative is great to learn proper tackling fundamentals in that 6-to-15 range, that youth range. By the time you get to high school, you want to have proper fundamentals and you want the high school coaches to inherit these kids—you want a generation of high school kids that have that proper base of knowledge.
"The preservation of the game," Oben says, "is more important than apologizing based on issues that have happened in the past."
VRENTAS: You said you believe the game is safer now than when you played. How?
OBEN: People are more educated. Football on all levels used to act as its own government with its own rules, and outsiders couldn’t come in. I think it is so much different now. Moms are involved; they’re doing that research. Are these coaches educated, are they certified, what type of drills are we doing? My mom didn’t care what type of drills we were doing. She just wanted to see me come home not in a cast at the end of the day. That was the only concern. Are you OK? Good.
VRENTAS: USA Football recently commissioned a study on the effectiveness of its Heads Up Football program, which focuses on training youth coaches, teaching Heads Up tackling and instructing proper equipment fitting. The results showed a 76 percent reduction in injuries compared to other youth leagues, as well as a 34 percent reduction in concussions in practices and a 29 percent reduction in games. What do those numbers mean to you?
OBEN: When the language is standardized and the approach is transparent and everyone knows, then you make better decisions. If a kid knows what he is doing, he will do better and he will be safer. As opposed to if this dad vs. that dad believes in this drill because that’s what he did in high school 30 years ago. You just can’t do that anymore. Just like in the NFL world, there are things you can’t do anymore that you could do just six years ago when I was playing. Everyone is accountable now.
VRENTAS: From your perspective, do health and safety concerns threaten the future of game?
OBEN: No. The biggest concerns (at the youth level) are whether or not coaches are properly educated. You peel off those layers, and it’s trust now. Would you not get in a car because someone has been in a car accident today? You trust that you are educated; you have a license. But that didn’t exist 20 years ago. There wasn’t a standardized way of educating and certifying coaches. We’ve gone through steps to minimize it.
VRENTAS: Do you feel you are playing a role, or have a responsibility, to preserve the game?
OBEN: The preservation of the game is more important than apologizing based on issues that have happened in the past. You play football for a reason. My kids play football for a reason. I believe in the football values. I believe in what you learn in the game. The leadership. I wasn’t in corporate America for 15 years before I walked in here. I was playing football, and I was doing other things—start-up companies, working in sales. But I took that leadership, getting up at 6 a.m., studying. I brought that into the office. I could never give back what football has done for me. Had I not played past high school and past college, I still would have the same approach. I was born in west Africa. I saw third-world poverty first hand. I grew up in D.C., and my mom cared for me as a bilingual secretary. I have met two presidents. I would have never have had that experience otherwise. I truly believe that.
VRENTAS: You previously worked with the league office last fall, as one of a panel of 11 former players to discuss revisions to the personal conduct policy. Now you’re hired for a role in the league office. Why did you want a seat at this table now?
OBEN: Because I felt like I could contribute to the solution. I openly welcome any criticism, because when you can sit down and help educate someone else, then you are helping peel off those layers. The layers have been layers of an onion, unfortunately, in certain cases. But things have gotten better. I appreciate the commissioner and Troy Vincent valuing my opinion (last fall). There were some tough things said in that room, and we are better because of it. I don’t know how many dozens were interviewed (for the youth football job), but I brought in my approach, and I am glad that I am here. It’s not even two months yet, but I plan to help improve and move the needle on this issue.
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