DaLawn Parrish says he’s tried his best to keep up with how the game of football has evolved, from his days as a standout cornerback at Wake Forest 13 years ago to his current life as head coach at Wise High School in Upper Marlboro.
He understands the importance of preventing head injuries and treating concussions, how tackling techniques have changed to make the game more safe, and the dangers heat and humidity pose during preseason workouts.
But in the aftermath of this month’s revelations that onetime Redskins defensive coach Gregg Williams operated a bounty system in the NFL that paid rewards for hits that injured opponents, Parrish sees the possibility that the game could be fundamentally altered. It is as if, Parrish said, the entire value system of the sport is now in question.
“I hope my words don’t get misconstrued,” Parrish said. “But this stuff, I’m like, man, this is crazy. Nobody is trying to illegally hurt somebody, but the name of the game is to physically manhandle the guy across from you. If we not doing that, we might as well don’t play football no more.”
Parrish is not alone. For while the NFL bounty scandal has rocked professional football, its aftershocks may ultimately be felt more acutely among coaches at the high school level, where most boys first learn how to play the game.
“There’s really only one way to teach certain things,” said Anacostia High School Coach Cato June, who was recently hired by his alma mater following an NFL career that included an all-pro selection in 2005. “How do you tell a guy, ‘He’s running full speed at you, tackle him and make sure he gets no more yards once you hit him’? There’s only one way to teach that, and it’s violent.”
The roots of the reward system operated illicitly by Williams with the Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints stretch deep, from the professional game through college down to high school.
Helmet stickers, “hit sticks” and other forms of incentives for physical play have been a tradition at many high schools — and even in some youth programs. Many colleges also hand out helmet stickers as rewards.
Teams adopt powerful imagery to illustrate their toughness. In 2008, players at Potomac Falls High in Sterling carried a two-by-four to the field to show their opponents they were “bringing the wood.” Last season, players at Nokesville’s Kettle Run High brought a sledgehammer onto the field.
Lake Braddock instituted a helmet sticker program before the 2010 season at the request of quarterback Michael Nebrich, the Post’s All-Met Offensive Player of the Year that season. Touchdowns, interceptions, sacks, yards gained and interceptions were all part of the rubric. So were big hits.
Nebrich, who now plays at the University of Connecticut, said it was customary that season for a player who delivered a big hit to come to the sideline shouting that he had earned a sticker.
“Almost every game I felt that way,” Petty said. “I’d run the option, even if I didn’t have the ball somebody would hit me. Even on defense if the play was going the opposite way, somebody would come around trying to hit me. It was something that became normal. . . . It was just part of the game.”
The incentives and imagery never serve as motivation to intentionally and illegally injure an opponent, coaches and players say; rather, they are used to encourage hard, but clean, football.
“There’s a difference between what we’re doing, because we are not motivating players to hurt someone,” said Lake Braddock Coach Jim Poythress, who is considering using helmet stickers to reward outstanding play again next season. “I think it shifts when you say if he’s taken off on a cart, you get 10 stickers. . . . To me, that’s different because that becomes a bounty.”
To illustrate that distinction, June points to the pregame speech he heard every week as a player at Anacostia from Willie Stewart, who coached 41 years in the District and sent nearly two dozen players on to professional careers.
“I might steal it,” June said. “Every single game he said, ‘Play hard, but play clean. Play hard, but play clean.’ ”
June said he would like institute a helmet sticker program this year and that the NFL bounty scandal would not cause him to reconsider that decision. “To give a guy incentive to make good football plays,” June said. “I will never stop doing that.”
The NFL bounty revelations are affecting the thinking of some coaches, though.
Charles Harley, the head coach at Forestville in Prince George’s County, said when the story broke this month he thought back to coaching his son’s youth football championship last fall. At halftime, he implored his team to focus on the other team’s best player.
“I remember that conversation, saying, ‘No. 2 is killing us, we got to get him out of the game,’ ” Harley recalled. “No part of me ever meant to hit him late or hit him low, but you’ve got to be more physical and get in his mind that we are coming [in order] to slow him down.”
Harley said the players understood what he meant. But even without direction from school administrators or outside pressure, the 12th-year coach said he is re-thinking how he’ll teach the game — and the language he uses to do it.
“I’ll make sure it’s clear,” Harley said. “I have to make sure the kids know what I meant.”
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