The University of New Hampshire Wildcats are heading into a do-or-die quarterfinal football game this week against the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.
And whether they win or not, there's one thing you can say about the Wildcats: They are likely the only football team in America trying to reduce concussions by practicing without helmets.
Football has a concussion problem, from the National Football League down to Pee-Wee teams. And there are lots of efforts out there to fix it.
But Erik Swartz, a University of New Hampshire professor of kinesiology, studies movement and says there has been very little discussion about getting to the root of the problem: technique. Instead of clashing helmet-first, as football players often do, the better approach is to keep the head up and tackle chest to chest, never leading with your helmet — or your face, neck or shoulders.
Swartz says his idea to experiment with having players drill without helmets came from his own time playing rugby.
"You keep your head out of the way in a tackle in rugby," he says. "Because it's not protected, it will hurt."
Swartz's ongoing study divides the team into two 25-player groups. The control group always practices with a helmet on, while the treatment group takes helmets off during a tackling drill.
Before practice, every player has a sensor placed behind the ear to gauge and relay the force and number of impacts to the head. Swartz and his team watch to see if and how that changes over the course of the season for each player.
During full-speed tackling, the idea is to "look up when you tackle, to see what you're hitting," says Wildcats running back Donald Goodrich, who is part of the group that does the drill without helmets.
"It becomes second nature if you do it enough in practice," Goodrich says.
After that short, intense drill, the helmets go back on.
The hope is that players who think more about their skulls during a game will suffer less head trauma over time.
Wildcats head coach Sean McDonnell says this study, or something else, has to work.
"I'm responsible, and our coaches are responsible, for these kids' safety," McDonnell says. "If we don't take care of this, it could be the end of football."
The NFL is paying attention. The pro football league, GE and the sports clothing firm Under Armour have together funded Swartz's work with a $500,000 grant.
Nineteen of the 20 researchers given similar grants to tackle the concussion problem are making things like stronger helmets, softer turf and better concussion diagnostics. Only Swartz is trying to change basic human behavior. He thinks his approach could work.
"If you look on the sidelines, let's say, after there's a touchdown in football, oftentimes the players will head-butt themselves to celebrate," Swartz points out. "They probably wouldn't do that if they didn't have a helmet on."
The Wildcats research will continue into next year, when Swartz says he also plans to expand the study into three high schools.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's a do-or-die quarterfinal ballgame for the University of New Hampshire Wildcats as they face off tomorrow against the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. And whether the Wildcats win the Division I FCS game or not, there's one thing you can definitely say about them. They are the only football team in America trying to reduce concussions by practicing without helmets. New Hampshire Public Radio's Jack Rodolico explains.
JACK RODOLICO, BYLINE: Football has a concussion problem, from the NFL down to Pee-Wee leagues, and there are lots of efforts out there to fix it.
ERIC SWARTZ: But there's been very little focus on actually what's at the root of it, changing the technique.
RODOLICO: Eric Swartz is a University of New Hampshire professor of kinesiology, which is the study of human movement. In the training room during a Wildcats practice, he says his idea to have players practice without helmets came from his time playing rugby.
SWARTZ: You keep your head out of the way in a tackle in rugby because it's not protected - it'll hurt.
RODOLICO: Swartz wants to bring that rugby awareness to the football field.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hut. Go get it. Go get it.
RODOLICO: There are two groups of players in this study and during practice, both groups run through a short tackling drill.
SEAN MCDONNELL: You want to talk about getting in an athletic position.
RODOLICO: That's head coach Sean McDonnell. Athletic position is squatting, arms braced, head forward.
One player charges into another player, who's holding a padded shield.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Keep that head out of it.
MCDONNELL: The biggest thing that we talk about is keeping the eyes and head up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Eyes up, eyes up - please.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Got to keep those eyes up. That's the second time you did it.
MCDONNELL: And then you want to tackle chest to chest, not leading with your helmet or your face.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Run, run, run, run. We're out. We're out.
RODOLICO: The theory is the group of players practicing this drill without helmets will still think about their skulls when they're wearing helmets during a game and have less head trauma over time. Donald Goodrich is a running back.
DONALD GOODRICH: In a situation where we're going to be going full speed, tackling, it's to look up when you tackle to see what you're hitting. It becomes second nature if you do it enough in practice.
RODOLICO: And is it becoming second nature for you? Do you see difference in how you play?
GOODRICH: Yeah, definitely.
RODOLICO: And Coach Sean McDonnell says something has to get players to think about their heads.
MCDONNELL: I'm responsible and our coaches are responsible for these kids' safety. If we don't take care of this, it could be the end of football.
RODOLICO: The NFL is paying attention to the hard science happening on the Wildcats' field. The league, GE and Under Armour gave Swartz a half-million dollar grant. And here's what's really interesting - 19 of the 20 researchers given these NFL grants are making things like stronger helmets, softer turf and better concussion diagnostics. No one but Swartz is trying to change basic human behavior.
SWARTZ: If you look on the sidelines, let's say after there's a touchdown in football, oftentimes players will head-butt themselves to celebrate. They probably wouldn't do that if they didn't have a helmet on.
RODOLICO: Swartz will have the chance to test this theory as he expands the study into three high schools next year. For NPR News, I'm Jack Rodolico, Concord, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.