Making Youth Football Safer: Virtual Player CEO Talks to Coaches

  • Dartmouth College Engineering graduate Quinn Connell, upper left, controls the movement of the team's “Mobile Virtual Player” during college football practice Wednesday Aug. 26, 2015, in Hanover, N.H. In an effort to avoid concussions, the team practices with its new “Mobile Virtual Player,” which the school says is the only powered device that simulates a real football player in size, weight, agility and speed. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 09, 2018

White River Junction — Since its inception in 2015, the Mobile Virtual Player — the football tackling dummy on wheels conceived and created by Dartmouth College football coach Buddy Teevens and the Thayer School of Engineering — has made its way into the hands of 15 National Football League teams, 30 college teams and 50 high school teams across the country.

Now, MVP president and CEO John Currier has his eyes set on creating a modified dummy for youth football by early 2019, and he’s hoping youth football programs in Vermont, New Hampshire and the Upper Valley will help them come up with the best design.

Currier met with fewer than 10 representatives of area youth football programs in Hartford High’s cafeteria on Monday night, pitching a partnership that could help MVP develop a cheaper, smaller and softer dummy for use at the youth level. Currier and the MVP team — which has marketed the device as an injury-reducing tackling tool in a sport combating concussion issues — is in the process of applying for the NFL and Texas Medical Center’s First and Future grant, which will award three prizes totaling $1 million to innovative projects that “help advance the game of football and the safety of its players,” according to its website.

The funds would finance research and development for an MVP dummy designed for youth football. A collaboration with area youth football programs is part of its pitch. Currier said the initial package to the NFL is due tonight. The First and Future application deadline is Jan. 20.

“We set about to, in a way, save football and really give people the tools and technology to coach the game better and safer,” Currier said during his presentation on Monday. “That starts at the youth (level), because that’s when most people start playing football in some type.”

Should the grant come about, MVP and local programs would begin work in the spring, measuring players of different sizes and ages as part of the design process. That data, Currier said, would help the MVP team create about 10 different prototypes to be tested at youth football practices in late summer.

“What size is good, what stiffness, sponginess is good, what shape is best,” he said. “We need that to set some initial specifications. ... We also want to see how it is working, in your view, as a tackling tool. Is it helping you do the things that further your techniques and your coaching?”

MVP Drive, the full-sized model, costs $8,295 per unit. Currier said he hopes a youth model can be much cheaper.

Dave Roberts, first-year head coach of the Claremont Mini Cardinals youth football program, is excited about the prospect of having fewer athletes tackling each other in practices.

“All-around, I think it’s a good thing to give kids something to be excited about for practices,” said Roberts, who has two sons involved in Claremont youth football.

He also hopes an MVP dummy created specifically for young athletes can help them become better prepared for open-field tackling.

“We do teach tackling, but the reason I think this will help more than anything is when we try to reduce impacts on a regular bags,” he added. “With our coaches holding them, you don’t get the true feel (of an opponent).”

The Vermont Principals Association phased out tackle football in fifth- and sixth-grade programs last year and will do the same with seventh- and eight-grade teams this year. It also ruled out kickoffs and punt returns in the name of head safety.

Many VPA-member fifth- and sixth-grade teams are independent or sponsored by municipal recreation departments. About 40 percent of Vermont’s middle school programs are VPA sponsored, including teams at Springfield, Windsor and Woodstock.

The decision has caused a divide among football coaches, some of whom believe learning to tackle at a younger age can help develop safer habits. Others believe simulated flag football, in shoulder pads and helmets, can develop a healthier athlete over time.

“We’re coming into this with, hopefully, innovation, thought and some creativity to show them how they can do it smarter,” said Currier, who mentioned that an MVP dummy could have flags to simulate flag football.

Andy Thorburn, who has been coaching youth football with the Hartford MiniCanes for 16 years, said having an MVP dummy at practice will not only help develop better football players but also showcase concussion safety to parents and athletes who may be skeptical.

“There’s a misconception, or a stigma, around football in general; particularly in youth football, concussions are a real issue,” Thorburn said. “At the high school, college and professional levels, those athletes are making those decisions themselves. ... One of the issues we run into is how do we (teach athletes how to tackle correctly) without getting someone else hurt. ...

“We struggle, at the youth level, with tackling dummies. A coach will hold the bag and offer some resistance, and we eventually have them tackle another kid. What the MVP would allow us to do is eliminate one side of that.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.