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Highlights from the 2016 prep football season

November 26, 2016 - 7:17 PM

Jim Paulsen’s top five moments

5 With Minneapolis North’s first football title in its 128-year history clinched, North players sneaked up behind coach Charles Adams III and doused him with ... three Styrofoam cups of water. Two more Prep Bowl games were to follow, so the Gatorade buckets needed to stay upright on the bench. Whatever works.

4 A possible future of youth football was played on a drizzly night at Blake in late September. Middle-schoolers from Blake and Providence Academy — clad in helmets, shoulder pads, jerseys and shorts —played Fusion Football (TackleBar™ Football), a new hybrid that eschews tackling but includes contact. It’s intended to introduce fundamentals and proper techniques before they begin actual football in ninth grade.

3 Tough guys, part 1: In the Class 6A title game, Totino-Grace running back Ivan Burlak swept right and, after a nice gain, was shoved out of bounds at the Eden Prairie 17, landing on his left shoulder. It was separated. The next time the Eagles had the ball, Burlak was back, having popped his shoulder back into place. He carried the ball three times after that, scoring Totino-Grace’s final touchdown.

2 Tough guys, part two: On first-and-goal from the 4-yard-line in Elk Rivers’ 19-7 Class 5A semifinal victory over Owatonna, Elks captain Sam Gibas took a pitchout and ran right. He got drilled at the knees at the 5 and nearly went down. But the whistle never blew, Gibas regained his balance and powered into the end zone for his third touchdown of the game.

1 Before a home game vs. Spring Lake Park, Cooper players lined up for the national anthem. About two-thirds of the Cooper players, most of whom are black, were on their right knees in a straight line, facing the flag, backs ramrod straight, each with his left arm on the shoulder of the teammate in front of him, helmets lined up on the field. The rest of the team, including coaches, stood at the back of the line, each with his left arm on the shoulder of the man in front, right hand on his heart. They remained motionless — and respectful — throughout the anthem.

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Modified football game bridges gap between flag and tackle

October 03, 2016 - 1:24 PM

Robert Grace IV — RG4 for short — took the snap from center, faked left, veered right and outran the opposing defense 70 yards for a touchdown. Spectacular, yes, but not extraordinary.

Except that Grace, an eighth-grader at Blake who barely reaches triple figures on the bathroom scale, was less than two years removed from heart surgery. He’d developed quickly as a basketball player and even made the Blake varsity as a seventh-grader last season. But football, with so many concerns about safety, looked like it might be out of his reach forever.

“My mom didn’t want me to play,” RG4 said. “She was worried.”

Enter Fusion Football (TackleBar™ Football). Concerned over dwindling participation numbers and searching for ways to limit repeated contact, the members of the Independent Metro Athletic Conference (IMAC) took the trend toward flag football and modified it for middle-schoolers.

Players wear helmets and shoulder pads yet play in shorts. TackleBars, a locally devised system that uses neoprene-like bars velcroed to harnesses, replace traditional flags. Contact, such as blocking, is allowed, but not actual tackling. The game resembles football, but players rarely hit the turf and injuries are practically nil.

“I love it. It’s a lot of fun,” Grace said. “Once my mom saw it, she was fine with it.”

Kid-tested. Mother-approved.

Reviving football

Ask Blake athletic director Nick Rathmann about Fusion Football (TackleBar™ Football) and you’ll get a 10-minute treatise on its virtues. Rathmann and the rest of the IMAC administrators and coaches believe they have hit on a way to revive football interest.

“Kids weren’t coming out for football,” Rathmann said. “The last year we had varsity football, we had 14 kids out.”

Blake entered a cooperative with Minnehaha Academy, St. Paul Academy, Mounds Park Academy and Hope Academy to form the SMB Wolfpack, which is in its second year and has been a tremendous success. Still, the challenge of getting kids interested in playing remained. The IMAC, whose members are private schools that offer K-12 curriculum, made a bold move last spring by removing tackle football before the varsity level. Fifth- and sixth-graders play flag football, seventh- and eighth-graders play Fusion (TackleBar™ Football).

“There’s no reason why a kid has to play tackle before ninth grade,” said Providence Academy Fusion (TackleBar™ Football) coach Tim Healy, who played football at St. John’s University. “We don’t do hitting drills or tackling. We go to ‘thud,’ where you contact and then stop. Hey, it worked for [former St. John’s coach John] Gagliardi.”

The emphasis is on fundamentals. Kids are trained to proper way to block and the right way to tackle. The latter is helped by the TackleBars, which were created by local product developer Jeremy Ling, himself a former football player at Mounds View.

Each player wears a three-bar harness, with two bars in back and one in front. The ball carrier is ruled down when a bar is ripped off.

“In flag football, the flags are in the wrong spot to teach good tackling technique,” Ling said. “We wanted to create something to encourage a kid to use proper technique.”

When play began in the eight-team league (IMAC members Blake, Breck, Minnehaha, Providence and SPA plus Brooklyn Center, New Life Academy and St. Agnes), even players were skeptical and took a wait-and-see approach. That, said RG4, has been replaced by enthusiasm.

“We had a school cookout during our first game and everybody got to see it,” he said. “After that, a bunch of kids wanted to come out.”

There are still some kinks to be worked out, but so far, so good. RG4’s father, Robert Grace III, said he thinks Fusion Football (TackleBar™ Football) came along at the right time for his son. “I think it’s perfect,” said the elder Grace, a former Blake basketball coach. “He can learn to enjoy the game and not worry about getting hurt.”

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Following Blake’s 19-6 victory over Providence, RG4 admitted to his first injury of the season, pointing to a cut on his leg.

“I cleated myself,” he said through a sheepish smile. “Other than that, I feel great.”

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