As a result of the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal and the rule changes the NFL has implemented in regards to illegal hits it’s clear that hard, clean football has more of a gray area than ever before.
It wasn’t a story at the forefront of Bryce Colceri’s mind, but the discussion of head-hunting in football was enough to trigger the memory of his hit on a Sandra Day O’Connor player this past season and the repercussions that followed.
“I took out one of their kids on a completely clean hit,” said Colceri, a senior at Pinnacle High School. “I hit him in the chest with my shoulder and he got whiplash. He got taken out of the game on a stretcher in an ambulance. It was a great hit and I was pumped, but I felt bad.”
Playing both wide receiver and safety exposed Colceri to both sides of hitting: going after it on defense and trying to avoid it on offense. From that point on in the game, he felt like he had a target on his back.
“The rest of the game they were trying to head-hunt me and take me out of the game,” Colceri said. “It’s that kind of thing where it’s a retaliation type. I didn’t feel like they were doing it before, but if you have good reason, I feel like kids can take it into their own hands and do try to hurt players.”
At the high school level, the pressure to injure might not be backed up by a reward, such as helmet stickers or money, but it’s present.
While Colceri witnessed it in the form of a retaliation, that pressure could come from the desire to intimidate the other team or to progress a player’s career in the form of highlight hits.
“It sounds bad, but to be honest, if you hit a guy clean, lay him out (and) take him out of the game, that is looked at as a positive thing,” Colceri said.
Marshall Peugh, a sophomore at South Dakota State University, played defensive end and offensive tackle at Ironwood High School in Glendale. While Peugh’s coaches made it clear to hit within the rulebook, he admitted that the intimidation factor plays a big role in the hits most players make.
“I’ve had coaches say, ‘Go out there and if you hit guys hard, you’ll intimidate them,” ’ Peugh said.
Similar things were heard by Jordan Hinton, a sophomore at Delta State University, during his time as a wide receiver at Mesa Mountain View High School.
“For certain positions, (big hits are) what it’s all about,” Hinton said. “They’re going to take that chance. That’s what people live for, that’s what the game loves.”
Peugh also noticed that, while they’re not out there condoning it, coaches do support big hits in the form of compliments and more playing time.
“When you’re making big hits, you’re getting called out,” Peugh said. “I bull-rush the offensive tackle and then get the sack and hit the quarterback real hard compared to bull-rushing the tackle and then just grabbing (the quarterback’s) leg. You get a kudos for both, but you just feel better about (the former) because your coach plays you more for big hits.”
When it comes to highlight films, Michael Arredondo, a senior at Desert Vista High School, said showing certain hits makes an impression on coaches and scouts as memorable as the hit itself.
“That’s one of your attention-getters that gets guys drafted or gets guys recruited: the (hits) that are at the beginning of the highlight film that are eye-catchers,” Arredondo said. “I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily people trying to hurt the other players, but just trying to get that big hit. Sometimes you fall in the wrong spot and people get hurt.”
Colceri has heard the ability to “lay wood” as one that sticks out to both coaches and scouts.
“Especially if you’re a highly-recruited player and you have those kinds of hits where you just smoke a kid more than once on highlight films and that’s what coaches see, that’s a huge recruiting point,” Colceri said.
Ever since news surfaced on March 2 that the New Orleans Saints, regarded as a model franchise since their resurgence in 2006 and reinforced by a 2009 Super Bowl win, had employed a bounty system on defense, big hits and the intentions behind them have been questioned.
Not only were NFL players and coaches put on notice after that announcement, but also football players and coaches at all levels of the sport.
The consensus feeling has been that if it was happening in secret within the Saints organization, it could be happening anywhere.
Former and current NFL players were quick to point out that the news was disturbing and bounty systems were unimaginable up until that point in time. It was widely acknowledged that teams benefit by taking out certain opposing players, but accepting money for malicious intent is where the line is drawn, and the Saints crossed that line.
One of the most significant concerns in addressing the issue head-on is determining where the bounty-system mentality stems from.
Desert Vista head coach Dan Hinds and Mountain Pointe head coach Norris Vaughan were both quick to insist that bounty systems are in no way prevalent at the high school level.
“I think it’s insane,” Vaughan said. “It’s crazy for (the Saints) to be doing something like that. I can’t imagine anything like that ever happening at a high school.”
Hinds felt the same way.
“We don’t discuss it here,” Hinds said. “It’s really not part of our football program.”
Arredondo, who is heading to New Mexico on scholarship, backed up Hinds’ statement by saying that Desert Vista coaches have never promoted anything besides playing hard.
“When you hear something like ‘We’re a more physical team than they are, let’s show it tonight,’ that’s never been misconstrued by any player I’ve seen to target anybody or target injuries,” Arredondo said. “It’s just to be physical and play the game more physical. That’s just the way it goes.”
Taking it a step further, Hinds acknowledged the Arizona Interscholastic Association is making a positive effort to ensure the game is as safe for his players as ever.
“Refs sometimes after big hits think, ‘I better throw that flag,’” Hinds said. “I’m okay with it really. I support the rule that the AIA has because the last thing you want to see is a kid get hurt like that.”
According to Brian Bolitho, the AIA’s Director of Business Media, Arizona student-athletes competing in high school athletics must take an educational course on concussions through the AIA Academy called the BrainBook Course. Coaches have also been instructed to take two online courses through the National Federation of State High School Associations: Concussions in Sports and Fundamentals of Coaching.
“I think injuries are a part of the game, but the proper education and the right equipment can help limit injuries,” Bolitho said. “I think while coaches in high school sports want to win, there are not coaches out there encouraging players to injure another player.”
One of the reasons for the Fundamentals of Coaching course, Bolitho said, is to learn that high school athletics go “above and beyond wins and losses.”
“Encouraging players to injure someone or to take cheap shots has no place in any sport,” Bolitho said.
He also admitted that while there are currently no penalties for a bounty system in place, discovering that a high school employs such a system would warrant swift action from the AIA Executive Board.
“I don’t think anything is lost in the news of late from the NFL,” Bolitho said. “If anything, it teaches student-athletes that this will not be tolerated and that is not the right way to play the game.”
Despite everything being done to prevent bounty systems and avoidable injuries at the high school, collegiate and professional levels, the nature of the sport remains intact and violence reigns supreme.
“I would say (violence is) ... just kind of engrained in our heads in our society because, especially in football, violence is encouraged,” Colceri said.
A connection Arredondo made to the big-hit culture was the evolvement of players.
“I think we live in a generation where the players are becoming faster and bigger and stronger to the point where hits 20 years ago that were fine are now becoming sometimes even close to lethal,” Arredondo said.
Hinton also believes that the big plays and big hits make football what it is.
“Without a doubt, I think that’s what the public wants (and) that’s what people want to see,” Hinton said. “People know of football for being a rough, tough sport. I think people are kind of getting upset that they’re trying to make it a softer game.”
If football is coming to the point where a change is necessary, a culture of violence and a society that encourages big hits can’t and won’t be changed overnight.
When former Saints’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Saints’ head coach Sean Payton were among those in the Saints’ organization fined and suspended heavily by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whether or not the punishments fit the crime proved to be a moot argument.
A precedent was set by the punishments, one which trickles down to the lowest levels of the sport. As bounty systems become unmentionable among coaches and players, it’s clear that violence will remain entrenched in a sport known for making a name for oneself.
“People cheer for a lot of things, but that one hit on that Sandra Day kid when I took him out of the game, I remember the crowd going insane,” Colceri said. “People just love, as bad as it sounds, violence a lot. It’s kind of wrong. I feel like that’ll be stuck with us for a while.”
• Chris Cole is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He is a sophomore at Arizona State University.