HANOVER, N.H. — At its nadir last spring, the remote-controlled tackling dummy of Dartmouth stood discarded at a dumpster. A student, Molly Stifler, spotted it. She knew her boyfriend, Elliot Kastner, had worked an eon on it. The project had stalled a year before, and now the dummy leaned against the dumpster in front of trash bags and the previous night’s beer cans, surrounded by unwanted boards and yesteryear’s furniture. It — he? — looked melancholy.
Stifler called Kastner.
If football winds up saved 100 years from now, and if the dashing Dartmouth tackling dummy has anything to do it, it will have coursed to importance through a dumpster, a last-ditch Plan B, a wee-hour catastrophe and a bevy of human turns, coincidences and defeats. It will owe much to one engineering school that disdains boundaries and preaches failure, and to two engineer-athletes who, at 23, chose to spend their summer of 2015 poor in sleep and rich in metal shavings. And it will owe its origins to a coach’s child chasing around the cat and dog with his joystick-controlled toy car.
Look now: The dummy with the five-second 40-yard dash is famous — not what you’d expect from a foam-vinyl-and metal sort devoid of charisma. It spent last fall and this spring helping the Ivy League champion football players at Dartmouth hone tackling techniques with the aim of reducing concussions because, by tackling it at practices, they could refrain from tackling each other. It got a fresh round of publicity last month when Ivy League coaches voted unanimously to eliminate full-contact hitting from practices. It has gone to Michigan State’s spring practice and bamboozled some Spartans, who briefly acted as if they had seen an extraterrestrial.
It appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” It has inspired the dean of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering to needle other deans at convention dinners with the question: “So, how many of you have had one of your design projects end up on ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’?”
It has snared its own trademark. It has secured a manufacturer to make replicas even if the sale price remains uncertain. It has commanded its own office in a woodsy office park three miles from campus, in Lebanon, N.H., where it often stands — two of them, actually — in a front corner. Its two main inventors, former Dartmouth defensive lineman Kastner and former Dartmouth rugby player Quinn Connell, painstakingly perfect it, thinking and toiling and writing stuff on the atrium window. This MVP (“Mobile Virtual Player”) has a director of marketing (the outstanding former Dartmouth receiver Ryan McManus) and an intern (Colin Keffernan).
It even has business cards, though it lacks the hands to dole them out.
At least two NFL teams have cold-called about it. Kansas State assistant coach Collin Klein, a 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist, mailed a card now tacked above a desk at the Lebanon office that reads, “The technology you work with will make our players and game better.”
The fundraising clearly has accelerated. Downstairs in the parking garage, a spiffy new manufacturing machine has arrived from California. Connell, that rare individual who can play rugby, build kayaks and teach calculus, proclaims himself “the most excited I’ve been” and says, “This basically can turn a hunk of metal into whatever you want.”
It’s a long, halting way from Buddy Teevens seeing his kid operate a toy car with a joystick and forming a big Hmmm. “And I’m not sure how my mind works sometimes,” said the 59-year-old-but-looks-younger Dartmouth football coach, “but I thought, What if we put that on a dummy?”
Teevens has worked two turns at Dartmouth (1987-91 and 2005-present) as well as one apiece at Florida (assistant) and Stanford (head coach). There and there, he found the counsel of Steve Spurrier (Florida) and Bill Walsh (Stanford), both of whom discouraged wearing out players for Saturdays with he-man practices on, say, Tuesdays. Teevens also began to fret for his beloved sport with the case of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who died at 50 in 2002 and became the first former NFL player to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) diagnosed. He began to fret more as public figures discussed their reluctance about entering sons (or would-be sons) in football.
By 2010, Teevens began forbidding tackling in practice, above the misgivings of some assistants and players. He has continued to do so over the objections of occasional social-media malcontents (“You’re ruining the game!”) and the questions of those within the game, such as the high school coach who said recently, “Coach, I believe in what you’re saying, but I’m the defensive coordinator. If I put this in, and we lose, I’m going to lose my job.”
He persists under a premise he stated in his office: “If you take one [hit] on a Tuesday, and you take a decent hit on Saturday, the fact that you had the subconcussive hit on Tuesday may contribute to the concussive hit on Saturday. And if you don’t have that subconcussive on Tuesday, and you had that same hit on Saturday, you’re probably not concussed.”
[Editorial Board: In concussion crisis, football must change]
Meanwhile, Dartmouth’s record has spiked. It stands 29-11 over the past four seasons, 17-3 over the past two. Players have reported feeling fresher.
Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering and its dean, Joseph Helble, believe deeply in resisting the isolation that can dog engineering schools, so it made sense when Teevens pitched his dummy concept to John Currier, his former Dartmouth classmate and an engineering professor generally busy with studying bearings for hip and knee prostheses. In turn, Currier thought of Kastner, mentioning the idea to the defensive lineman in 2013 in Indianapolis, on a weekend Dartmouth played at Butler. Kastner already had worked with Connell on a material-science project testing “which orientations of fiberglass would give you the most effective energy dissipations,” as Connell put it. So
Kastner, Connell and two other students, Andrew Smist and Noah Glennon, began trying to concoct a mobile, self-righting tackling dummy. They did so in an environment in which Helble, the dean, relishes the words of one of his professors: “Fail early, and fail often, because that’s how you learn.”
Eventually the failed dummy stood in some engineering-school corner, incomplete, while students navigated their frantic lives: their graduations and whatnot.
Said Currier: “It was somebody cleaning house in the engineering school to make room for new projects, as often happens. And they sit around and say, ‘Well, it hasn’t been touched for a while, so this must be trash. We’re going to clean it up, and we’re going to be good stewards of our space and throw it away.’ And it ended up in the dumpster.”
When Stifler saw it near a fraternity and called Kastner, as he puts it now, “It was basically broken, and seeing it in the dumpster symbolized where the project had come. . . . I was graduating, but, still, seeing it in there in the trash was hard, as we had already poured so much work into it, and the contrast between all the old trash and our beloved project made it obvious that there was still life in it.
“So we kind of banded together there, starting from the impetus of that moment and emotion. Molly waited with it until we could load it up in the back of her blue Toyota Highlander to make sure nothing could happen to it before we could rescue it.”
Kastner called Connell. They soon agreed to give it one final try over the summer of 2015. Connell returned to Hanover. They began on June 15.
At one point, Connell met with Teevens, and: “We’re sitting in there in his office, and he looked at me and said, ‘So, is this going to happen or what?’ . . . And, you know, at that point in my mind I’ve got a million doubts, have no idea whether it’s going to work or not, but you’ve got to look him in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, we can get this thing working for you.’ ”
It became a summer of double shifts in the shop, evenings at the drawing boards and computers, midday workouts instead of lunches, Kastner briskly eating microwavable meals with cardboard as utensil. Come early August, as Currier put it, they “didn’t have anything that was worth putting on the field that anybody would notice.”
They went to a Plan B, essentially a simplification. Come Aug. 19, they were trucking a new version of the dummy to a field when they came across rugby player Madison Hughes. They asked Hughes to tackle it. Upstairs in his office above the field, Teevens saw it move and said, “Son of a gun.” Across the world, Connell’s edited video of Hughes tackling the MVP got 30,000 views and then, during a one-hour car ride, reached 100,000, at which point Connell, Kastner and Stifler stopped the car to holler out the windows.
[The frightening link between concussions and suicide]
Come Aug. 26 at 2 a.m., hours before CNN and all media creation would arrive for a morning demonstration, Kastner was making final adjustments to a dummy when, from across the room, Connell heard a ping, then odd silence. A key metal plate had broken, and Kastner stood somberly holding its two parts. Connell recalls “head in the hands” and “sink to the floor,” but also laughter.
“If it had all gone as planned,” he says, “what’s the challenge you’re going to overcome?”
They failed to wallow, called somebody to open the shop early, went home in their usual coat of metal shavings, showered, slept an hour and returned at 6 a.m. About four hours later, they rushed two dummies out to meet members of the media and the Dartmouth team. The time was right. Football people yearn for solutions.
Come April, there would be dizzying progress, even though Connell spent the fall teaching calculus and all else on a mobile high school coursing through Latin America, stopping to conduct conference calls about the MVP dummy at pay phones in rural Colombia. Come April, Kastner would say, “I think it’s slowly dawning on us that this is a real product that’s going to be used by teams we’ve kind of grown up watching.”
But back in August, they arrived to the field frantically and unloaded the dummies, just months after one dummy had hung out at a dumpster. Their lives — and, who knows, maybe even American football — were about to change in a whoosh.