To best illustrate his point, Herman Edwards pulled no punches.
The former NFL player and head coach now working as an NFL analyst for ESPN reared back with a fist and smacked his open palm for a loud, reverberating “Pop!” That, Edwards said, is what most football fans like to hear.
Emphatic contact. Ear-catching sounds.
“People like to see hits; we all like to see competitive violence within the rules.” Edwards said as he addressed a room full of youth coaches, high school coaches and corporate figures from the Bay Area for a round-table discussion of “The Future of Football: From Pee Wee to Pro.”
With a feel-good vibe of Super Bowl 50 playing out this week at Super Bowl City in San Francisco and the golden anniversary game to kick off Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, there’s an undercurrent of concern about America’s new favorite pastime.
Is it safe? Are athletes and coaches getting the right message in terms of competing, leadership and lessons?
This event at the swank Menlo Circus Club in Atherton was hosted by Positive Coaching Alliance, which stresses the good in athletics and coaching at all levels.
The floor mostly belonged to Edwards, Stanford coach David Shaw, 49ers executive Al Guido and USA Football executive Scott Hallenbeck. The moderator was 49ers play-by-play voice Ted Robinson.
There are concerns nationwide about football safety, particularly concussions. Studies show that participation has dipped for youth football. But the panel stressed that if players are taught properly, and the game is played correctly, football is safe.
Edwards reminded that contact never will go away in football, nor should it.
“If you want to play flag football or touch football, go ahead, but that’s not this kind of football,” he said. “Let’s face it. Not everyone has the skill set or the mentality to play tackle football.
“I know this: I was in the NFL for 30 years as a player and coach. The game is much better now than it’s ever been. Yes, (safety) is the biggest elephant in the room, but football will always be around. It’s not going anywhere.”
Said Shaw, “I’m excited about football in general. It’s never been coached better, never been safer, and that makes it better football. We’ll see better lives long term because of it. I think we’ll not see a small jump in football (participation) but a huge jump.”
The coaches said there’s a larger message, beyond safety: what football can provide. Edwards said football gave him an outlet, a chance to earn a scholarship to Cal, to play at the highest level, including participating in Super Bowl XV with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Shaw said he enjoys having an impact on lives through coaching. Said Guido of the 49ers, “We bring kids to Levi’s Stadium, and they’re excited. Kids in football are learning to play with passion, a test of wills, and getting something out of this.”
Edwards also addressed youth and high school coaches who deal with parents convinced their child is on the fast track to the pros. He passed along a sobering message.
“Look, 1 percent of college athletes make it to the NFL, and about (2 percent) of high school kids play in college,” Edwards said. “If your (players’) parents think their little Johnny or Billy is going to the pros, guess what? He’s not! Play the game to enjoy the game.”
Edwards and the panel told coaches to urge parents of players to ease up. Don’t be a “helicopter” parent, Edwards emphasized. And the panel said coaches should encourage playing multiple sports and not hogging athletes with peer pressure.
Said Hallenbeck of USA Football, “What in the world is an elite athlete at age 10 and 12?”
Edwards closed with how young athletes need to have a more singular focus.
“Tell kids this: It’s not about the opponent,” Edwards said. “It’s about you. Compete against yourself. Don’t worry about the score. Push yourself. Set a standard for yourself, and when you can do that, when you can say you did your best, then you’re on the road to success. Mom and dad can be the worst. They need to understand it’s more than a game. It’s about getting better. Focus on that.
“Football is still the greatest game.”