Why you should care

Because banning practice hits could preserve the game America loves.

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Dartmouth football was in the pits. During the 2009 season, the team had gone 2 and 8. Pretty dreadful, except when compared to the year before, when it racked up 10 losses and zero wins — its first winless year ever, excluding a single-game season more than a century ago. As much as any football coach, Buddy Teevens was staring down the barrel of a gun. “My number was probably up,” the 61-year-old reflects now.

It was a strange situation for Teevens, who had once been the golden boy of Dartmouth. As a senior quarterback, he led the team to an Ivy League championship in 1978 — while also starring on the hockey team. And as a 30-something hotshot coach in the early ’90s, he secured two more titles for the Big Green. Yet after returning in the mid-aughts, Teevens was now mired in the worst coaching stretch of his career.

Buddy teevens4 penn17 gf

Buddy Teevens with the Dartmouth football team.

Source Courtesy of Buddy Teevens

Rather than play it safe, the famously hands-on coach (at Tulane, he used to cut the grass, line the field and paint the locker room himself) latched on to a wildly unorthodox idea. The thought had been planted years before by Steve Spurrier (“Get your guys to game day,” the genius Florida play caller had told Teevens, when Teevens was the Gators offensive coordinator) and reinforced by Bill Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers legend, who advised Teevens, then head coach at Stanford: “Take care of your players.”

Teevens’ end goal? Eliminate the need for athletes to knock each other silly between Saturdays.

And so, before the 2010 season, Teevens heeded their advice and his own conscience and became the first college coach to ban live tackling from his practices. The goal: reduce concussion and injury risk with practice hits on dummies, not teammates.

His coaching staff wasn’t happy. “Clipboards were flying in the air,” Teevens remembers. Many dusted off their résumés, convinced they’d soon be canned. But something surprising happened: Dartmouth had its first winning season in more than a decade, with injuries down 80 percent. Even more surprising, missed tackles were cut in half. What began as a moral decision to protect his players had made them more competitive.

The attention paid to the impact of brain trauma on former athletes has only grown since Teevens began his trailblazing. “There was no template to follow. Nobody was doing it,” he says — but that’s changing. Last year, the Ivy League became the first NCAA conference to ban in-season hitting in practices — where most concussions occur — although it’s still permitted in the summer and spring. And Teevens continues to advocate, testifying to Congress about concussion prevention in youth sports, and serving as board chairman of MVP, a Dartmouth-affiliated company selling mobile tackling dummies designed to reduce player-on-player collisions.

Teevens’ end goal? Eliminate the need for athletes to knock each other silly between Saturdays. That’s heady stuff for the 6-foot-on-stilts former quarterback (during Canadian Football League tryouts, Teevens taped heels to his cleats to convince coaches he was even 5-foot-10), but as one of nine kids from Pembroke, Massachusetts, he’s accustomed to speaking loud, and fast, to make his voice heard. It’s proved useful when preaching his no-tackling gospel to coaches, a pretty conservative bunch. Many probably thought he was “the village idiot,” Teevens remarks. But now he feels vindicated: “People have started to think more deeply about it.”

There is still much work to be done, though. Nationwide, coaches still engage in full-contact practices, including the “Oklahoma” drill, where athletes line up to knock the snot out of each other. While the NFL has greatly reduced in-season practice, major NCAA Division I schools have been slow to react: “A single coach can’t do it: If his team didn’t have success for any reason, it would be blamed on [not tackling],” Teevens admits. Plus, most concussion-related tech is merely diagnostic (e.g., head sensors that alert coaches to bad hits); it can’t stop brain-rattling tackles.

Cue MVP: Teevens knew he wanted to lower the odds for injury during practice, but his players still had to practice. So together with John Currier, a Dartmouth engineer he had known since freshman year in college, he invented a remote-controlled tackling dummy, nicknamed “MVP” for “mobile virtual player.” Soon after starting the company in 2015, the pair appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert — today, their customers include half the NFL, a few dozen college teams and more than 50 prep schools across the nation. “In large part, Teevens is the face of the franchise,” Currier says. “It’s associated with Buddy’s way of ‘Let’s practice high-speed, high-contact reps, but don’t hit your helmet on your buddies.’”

At Dartmouth’s Memorial Field, the 185-pound dummy turns on a dime — directed by the coaches with a hand-held device — and races at a 4.7-second 40-yard-dash pace. It can run routes, pace sideways for blocking drills, rush the passer and move like any human athlete on the turf. MVP’s next goal is to allow operators to preprogram multiple dummies: A team of them could pull off synchronized defensive maneuvers. And retailing at just under $9,000 each, the dummies are affordable enough for some youth sports leagues, not just the pros and college ball. Other collision-oriented sports, such as rugby, or even hockey (imagine it: dummies on skates), could benefit as well.

But it’s hard not to see this as the dystopian future of football, where robots replace human athletes, an idea Teevens knowingly spoofed in an April Fools’ Day video. It’s a nod to critics who worry he is altering the game beyond recognition — but to Teevens, reducing contact drills is just another necessary evolution. “If we don’t change the way we coach the game,” he says, “we won’t have a game to coach.”

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