Devin and Jason McCourty remember very clearly how, as boys growing up in Nyack, N.Y., Aug.1 was a red-letter day every year. The date always marked the end of an easygoing summer with neighborhood friends, and the beginning of preparation for a new Pop Warner football season.
“I remember our second year we had practices every single night and I didn’t want to play,” says Jason, now a cornerback for the Tennessee Titans. “But my mom said we had to finish the season.”
So they did – and learned to love the game and the Pop Warner league – as a result. The twins said it was some of the most fun football they have ever been a part of, free of the complicated business and contract talk that players face in the NFL. Now the brothers are hoping to share their first-hand experience with aspiring football players around the country by partnering with Pop Warner Little Scholars and DSM Nutritional Products to promote the “Eat Smart, Play Safe” program, which aims to educate families about injury prevention and nutrition.
At the “Eat Smart, Play Safe” youth sports safety panel in New York City in June, Pop Warner’s executive director, Jon Butler, said that his organization was the first to implement rules to limit contact to prevent head injuries. A 2012 study conducted by Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University researchers analyzed the practice structure and head impact exposure in football players ages nine to twelve using helmet mounted accelerometers. While most impacts were lower, some players recorded high magnitudes that were similar to those seen at the high school or college level. The study, however, found that this type of head impact in youth football can be reduced by limited contact in practices, so Pop Warner created a rule limiting contact to a third of total weekly practice time.
This year, Pop Warner also partnered with USA Football’s Heads Up program to ensure that all coaches are certified to teach proper blocking and tackling techniques. Devin and Jason McCourty brought their football perspective to the panel, and also make sure to teach kids the “head up” method of tackling at their annual camp in Nyack, NY.
“Even though we try, we don’t always teach the best technique in the NFL and the kids turn on the TV and see that,” says Devin, a defensive back for the New England Patriots. “So we teach them to go slow at first – you wrap up with your arms and you don’t make hits just by trying to hit as hard as you can, because that’s when things lead to concussions.”
The panel also focused on the importance of healthy eating and hydration for young athletes. In spring 2014, the program conducted a national, online survey of 3,648 parents and coaches and found that more than half of respondents said children were significantly hungrier during the sports season. The twins say they remember eating fruits such as grapes and strawberries before games, and that their mother, Phyllis Harrell, made sure they always had a meat, vegetable and starch on their plate for dinner.
“For us on a pro level, nutrition is still something we care about,” says Devin. “When we go to different camps, the kids say they don’t like fruits or veggies, but I’ll go and eat broccoli right in front of them and when they see a pro athlete eat it, it goes a long way.”
The twins said they want to show how the messages behind the program’s research apply to athletes beyond Pop Warner, including those at the high school, college and professional levels. After their third annual camp this year, Jason said it’s a great feeling to see the kids excited and with their parents learning the safety techniques. “Those smiles are their faces are everything,” he adds.
“It’s tough for a kid to really see it, especially at a younger age, but the most important thing is that parents are getting involved and passing it down,” says Devin. “The first thing you learn is at home.”