When Herman L. “Bubba” Scott, became executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association in the mid-1960s, there was no standard for helmet safety for high school football.
However, much changed during his 25-year tenure at the AHSAA thanks in big part to Scott’s leadership as part of the National Federation of State High School Associations Football Rules Committee.
Scott served on the committee for 23 years spending nine as vice chairman and four as chairman from 1976-1990. It was during his leadership tenure that helmet safety regulations were put in place that are still impacting the sport of football and making it safer.
Scott joined the NFHS Football Rules committee in 1967. One year later, the climate began to change after 1968 when 32 fatalities were documented from head and neck injuries directly due to participation in the sport in organized competition.
In 1969, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) was formed to commission research directed at injury reduction. Research began with football being targeted for their initial research effort.
Researchers found that 1968 was not the norm. In fact, research showed that the incidence of head injury fatalities had been averaging less than two per 100,000 athletes. However, most agreed that some sort of helmet safety standard must be developed as a guide for NFHS member schools.
Forging ahead, a testing system was devised in 1970 and by 1973 the test standard was published for the first time. In 1975, one of the nation’s leading helmet re-conditioners found that 84 percent of the helmets tested failed the NOCSAE drop test.
Scott, a former college and high school football coach himself, helped spearhead rules changes in the high school game that went into effect in 1980 requiring all NFHS high school teams to use helmets that carried the NOCSAE certified stamp.
Now, 35 years later, NOCSAE is still the defining organization on helmet safety. According to NFHS rules, AHSAA member schools must use new helmets that carry the NOCSAE certification stamp and must re-certify used helmets based on helmet manufacturer recommendations. Most manufacturers recommend re-certifying helmets by having them re-conditioned a minimum of every two years. Most AHSAA member schools re-condition helmets annually.
Reconditioned helmets must also carry the NOCSAE certification sticker and must display the date of original purchase. Each helmet manufacturer sets the shelf life of its helmets and the warranty. Once that warranty expires, the helmet is no longer used. The date of origin is also displayed on a helmet.
Clay-Chalkville High School head football coach Jerry Hood said the protocol surrounding helmet safety is now automatic as far as he is concerned. We do what we have always done, he said.
“We have our helmets redone every year and make sure they are fitted properly,” he said.
Dothan High School head football coach Kelvis White said football rules, many which changed during Scott’s tenure on the NFHS Football Rules committee, have also made the game safer, but requiring safety standards for equipment such as helmets is essential.
White, the son and nephew of AHSAA Hall of Fame coaches Louis White and Mylun White, said helmet safety is a top priority at his school.
“Our principal doesn’t cut cost on helmets,” White said. "They have the Virginia Tech 5-star rating, and all our helmets are the best helmets we can get.”
White, considered one of the best interior line coaches in the state, added, “Even a 5-star helmet isn’t going to protect you if you use it improperly. That’s why we spend so much time teaching technique that is designed to get the head out of the contact. We get our helmets re-conditioned every year, but at the same time we still emphasize that technique by coaching them the right way.”
White said rules allowing kids to extend their arms revolutionized the game at the high school level. That is why it is also important to spend time in the weight room developing players’ upper body strength.
“A stronger kid is going to trust his technique more than a timid kid because the natural thing to do is to duck his head when he sees a big ole’ back coming his way,” White said. “It isn’t just about being stronger. If you are confident in your ability and your weights and you feel good that you can use your hands to protect yourself, then you can use technique and not have to get your head involved.”
Montgomery Academy head football coach and athletic director Anthony McCall said he has learned a lot about helmet safety since becoming a head football coach thanks to AHSAA education at rules clinics, the AHSAA Summer Conference medical advisory meetings and football clinics.
“At Montgomery Academy, I am proud to say we have our helmets certified annually,” McCall said. “As soon as the season is over, within two weeks we are calling the company and telling them to come pick up our helmets. What they are looking at now, and something I wasn’t aware of until a couple of years ago, is that helmets have a shelf life.
“Just last year, we had to discard about 30 helmets and purchase new helmets. That is something we take seriously – making sure each year our helmets and other equipment are up to par for our student-athletes. We share this with our parents so they will know that the helmets and equipment we are putting their children in are the best that we can provide for them.
McCall said the shelf life stamp of a helmet is easy to see.
“It shows the year it was actually made and when the shelf life expires,” he said. “We are fortunate to have a company that looks at that for us, and they won’t attempt to re-condition that helmet if it is expired. As part of the reconditioning and recertification, the helmets are getting new facemasks, are being cleaned (inside and out), the whole nine yards. In some ways, we are basically getting a new helmet back when we recertify them.
“We know that we can’t put a price on the safety of our kids, so whatever the cost of doing that, we do it annually.”
In Scott’s first year as vice-chairman of the Football Rules Committee in 1976, rules-making committees were responsible for initiating changes which prohibited initial contact of the head in blocking and tackling and removed spearing from football. These changes have helped to significantly reduce quadriplegic injuries as well as other serious and fatal head injuries.
Scott’s national impact did not go unnoticed by the NFHS. He was inducted into the NFHS High School Hall of Fame in 1990 and is one of only 42 individuals to receive the NFHS prestigious Award of Merit (1992). Other notable recipients have been former President Gerald Ford, former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Walter Byers, the first NCAA executive director.
Other Alabamians have played key roles in educating coaches.
Cliff Harper, the AHSAA executive director before Scott, designed the illustrated rule book the NFHS still uses today to instruct football contest officials. Dan Washburn, who followed Scott as executive director in 1991, worked with the AHSAA Central Board to set up an emphasis on sportsmanship through the Star Sportsmanship program created by Learning Through Sports that has been completed by more than 200,000 student-athletes, coaches, administrators, contest officials and parents since its inception in 2007. And during current Executive Director Steve Savarese’s tenure, more than 11,000 coaches and administrators have completed the NFHS Concussion Awareness and Heat Illness Prevention courses which are now required by the AHSAA for each faculty and non-faculty coach in all sports.
Since 1990, AHSAA Director of Officials Greg Brewer has served on the NFHS Football Rules Committee.
Parents wanting to know more about helmet safety can go to NOCSAE’s website: www. http://nocsae.org/.
UP NEXT: PART 4 OF THE SERIES: THE IMPORTANCE OF EMERGENCY ACTION PLANS FOR ATHLETICS