Steven Pack

Newton-Conover head coach Steven Pack signals a play to his offense in this file photo.

NEWTON — With some help from one of the nation’s premier football helmet manufacturers, and a Hall of Fame quarterback, the Newton-Conover football team has taken steps towards keeping the Red Devils safer on the field than ever.

“We’ve always prided ourselves as being a safe program,” said Newton-Conover athletic director John Echerd. “But now this is going to make sure that we are even more.”

Newton-Conover was recently named as one of 10 football programs nationwide to receive a $10,000 grant from Riddell. Out of more than 800 applicants for the grant, seven high school and three youth football programs from a total of 10 states were selected.

The grant recipients are what Riddell calls its “Smarter Football” class. The equipment grants are targeted towards upgrading equipment like helmets, shoulder pads, padded apparel and blocking equipment.

“We’re supposed to take that $10,000 and put it towards newer safety equipment,” Echerd said. “The really cool thing, on top of that, is that Peyton Manning added money on top of that so that it ended up being over $12,000.”

Steven Pack, head coach of the Red Devils’ football program, said, “Even with the grant, we purchase certain helmets and Peyton Manning comes in and upgrades all of those helmets to an even more expensive helmet. So, it’s great to have Peyton on your side.”

Manning is a Riddell spokesperson and is involved in the Des Planes, Illinois, company’s effort to promote the sport and encourage programs at all levels in making the sport as safe as possible. Manning also made YouTube congratulatory videos highlighting each of the selected programs’ grant applications.

Echerd credited Pack for spearheading the school’s effort to get the grant, as well as maintaining a focus on safety issues and the best practices when it comes to player safety throughout all levels of the Newton-Conover football program.

“Riddell does a program called Smarter Football. They’re trying to build a smarter, safer football for young kids and also high school kids, college — all the way to the pros. Back in the summer, I wrote a grant with the help of my wife,” Pack said. “Basically, the grant said what we do with our coaches to try to keep our kids safe.”

Pack explained that coaches are thoroughly trained through multiple online and in-seat classes in regards to head trauma from contact including concussions, cardiac issues, as well as the proper coaching and practice techniques to develop safe blocking and tackling skills.

“There’s kind of a thought that this game’s too dangerous in a lot of ways. But actually, the game is safer than it ever has been,” said Pack. “We limit the body-to-body contact during the week. We go through smart tackling drills to where we’re just not pounding kids over and over and over.”

The Newton-Conover staff is well-versed in the coaching methods espoused by USA Football and Heads Up Football.

“I had a good time yesterday,” Pack said following last Friday’s 34-12 win over Lincolnton. “I actually got to go spend that $10,000. We got some really great helmets.”

Echerd said the grant has allowed the program to purchase 25 helmets featuring some of the latest design components of safety technology.

“The new InSite program they’re putting inside these helmets allows us to track concussions,” Echerd said. “Our trainers can watch during a game or practice and he can track. Say our defensive linemen are getting too many hits in practice and he can adjust that and have them take a break. Same thing in a game. He can get an alert and we can watch and monitor that kid and see what’s going on.”

Riddell calls InSite an “industry-leading impact monitoring system which identifies training opportunities and a-typical head impacts in real time.”

Bill Harver is the trainer assigned to the Newton-Conover athletics program. He noted the immense responsibility of overseeing athletes’ safety in competitive situations. Harver said they not only establish baseline levels for the players, but also work hand-in-hand with the athletes’ family physicians in the event of an injury to provide a complete assessment system.

Harver described what he sees as the benefits of the newest helmet technology.

“It could be a tremendous benefit. We can’t see everything,” Harver said. “So, if we have a helmet that could give us the ability to say, ‘Hey, this person needs to be removed from competition to be assessed properly,’ then that would be huge for us. It will be a huge step forward for health and safety.”

From Pack’s viewpoint, it’s another asset in caring for those athletes entrusted to him and his staff.

“Our school does a great job of keeping our kids safe,” Pack said. “But this is an added bonus to help keep our kids safe, and hopefully be more successful.”

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