Long a leader in the evolution of player safety, the Menlo School football team has embraced a method of shoulder-leverage tackling as one of its priorities. In August, all of the Knights were taught rugby-style tackling, in which you lead not with your head but rather your body.
Teaching proper tackling techniques is always part of a football instruction. But now, more than ever, mastering technique of body alignment is crucial.
Menlo School and head coach Mark Newton have always been out of the blocks early in terms of player safety: Menlo reduced hours of contact practice long before state regulations were in place, introduced baseline testing and ImPACT assessment years ago and now all student-athletes participate in a head-injury awareness discussion with head athletic trainer Dr. Jon Cohen.
Over the summer, leading into his 11th season, Newton made common practice an effective tackling method is similar to what the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have employed.
Enter national and collegiate rugby coach Gene Mountjoy, who has been working with the Knights players and coaching staff as a tackling coach. Newton has known Mountjoy for years and not only had one of the top rugby experts nearby, but also one who shares the same set of values in coaching students and understood Menlo's system.
Mountjoy is co-founder of the Bay Area-based USA International Rugby Academy, who coaches Santa Clara and served as head coach at Boston College. He teaches 10 principles of safe and effective tackling procedure, including where you feet should go, wrapping, and basically having all the same terminology so that the coaches are all on the same page.
"I can see how the kids are progressing. We want them to get low, so they're in a safe body position," Mountjoy said. "The idea is 'Don't use your head as a missile. You cannot lead with your head and have no regard for your neck. Hands in front, track players with your hips and attach hands to your opponents core.' "
The players and coaches were quick to adopt the method, and the learning curve wasn't that steep despite that many of the players and coaches had been taught different techniques of tackling.
"The players bought in right away," Newton said. "We told them the philosophy behind it, explained that the Seahawks were doing a similar type of tackling -- we're not doing exactly the same thing -- but they put a lot of trust in us. It took a little while to change some of their patterns.
"I was really impressed with our coaching staff -- we have a really experienced staff, and they always have the kids' best interest in mind, so we said, 'This is the way we're going to do it.' "
Menlo defensive lineman and running back Charlie Roth said using a new technique took some adjusting, but the constant repetition made them game-day ready.
"We've all been playing since we were freshman and even before that, and have all been taught one way. Switching it was a whole different world for us, but once we got it down, we really clicked and we're tackling really well,"
The beauty is that Mountjoy can teach all the players simultaneously.
"It doesn't matter the size of the tackler. With this way, you can tackle any defender of any other size," Menlo receiver/safety/kicker Jack Marren said. "It's a rugby-way of thinking: the technique is all the same no matter the size.
"All our work was paying off when we entered the game. It was a pretty easy transition once we went to full-speed tackling."
Menlo competes in the top tier of the Peninsula Athletic League, the Bay Division, and has made the Central Coast Section playoffs eight consecutive years -- twice reaching the finals.
"We want to try to put ourselves to be in the position where we play really competitive football but also safe," Newton said.
Menlo is off to a 2-2 start heading into Friday's nonleague game against Soquel at Sequoia High in Redwood City at 7 p.m.