Wait, what happened to the kickoff?

When the Riverdale Country School football season opens this fall, the game will be played with some new rules. The kickoff and onside kicks are going away, and other policies are being adopted to make practices and games safer for athletes. 

The Metropolitan Independent Football League (MIFL), which includes Riverdale and 10 other New York City-area independent schools, is the first high school sports league in the country to make this bold move,

The hope is that by making changes in how games are played and how practices are managed, schools can prevent concussions and other serious injuries.

Riverdale Athletics Director of Athletics John Pizzi spearheaded the changes in response to injuries suffered by his players during the 2018 season. 

“We had so many injuries,” he said. “We had to cancel the last game of our season because we did not have enough healthy and experienced players to play the game.’’ Some of the athletes could not compete in their winter sport because they were still recovering from injuries.

Pizzi consulted with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which has a long association with the school. Riverdale follows the foundation’s concussion protocol and Pizzi often talks with Nowinski about safety issues. 

“I called Chris and said, ‘I want to change football in America,’ ” Pizzi said. “I was not sure if he thought I was crazy or if it was even feasible. But, he said, ‘I love it. Let’s do it.’ ”

With funding from a Riverdale family, the Concussion Legacy Foundation undertook a study of schools in the league to learn more about how injuries were occurring during practices and games and how the game might be made safer for teenage athletes.  

Head of School Dominic A.A. Randolph praised the cooperative effort undertaken by Riverdale, the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and the MIFL.

 “As in other places at Riverdale, we are always looking for research to inform the way we are innovating education,” he said. “We deeply appreciate the Riverdale family who supported this research; our athletic department led by John Pizzi and our football coach, Phil Treglia; our peer schools in the MIFL who made this possible and approved the changes; and the Concussion Legacy Foundation led by Dr. Chris Nowinski who applied the research to practice. We hope that these wise changes will allow football and increased safety to co-exist on the field and allow the game to thrive at the high school level.”

In addition to the no-kickoff rule, the new regulations limit full-contact practice time for a player to 15 minutes a week and prohibit double-session practices on consecutive days. If a team is down by more than 35 points at the beginning of the third quarter, the running clock will be used to advance the game.

Onside kicks will not be permitted; instead, in the last five minutes of the second and fourth quarter, the offensive team can opt for the fourth-down play to start at their own 40-yard line. The team must advance 12 yards; otherwise, it’s a change in possession where the ball is stopped. But the team may not advance past the defensive team’s 48-yard line regardless of the number of yards gained on the play. 

Finally, teams are required to provide adequate medical transportation to and from the field for injured players, and to have both a doctor and EMT/ambulance present at all varsity contests. Traveling teams are encouraged to bring a certified athletic trainer to games.

The Concussion Legacy Foundation, which educates the public, schools, colleges, and professional leagues about sports safety and concussions, wants to bring these rule changes to other high schools. (Read the foundation’s statement here.)

At Riverdale, the athletics department is excited about attracting more players to the sport and keeping them safer. Head Football Coach Phil Treglia, who joined the team in 2019, introduced new safety protocols for practices in his first season, and there were no concussions that year.

“As a coach I want the players and parents to know that they are valued. Their well being, which includes physical health, is at the top of any decision we make as a program. Football is a safer game in 2021 than it has ever been. Our coaching staff teaches methods of tackling and blocking thatwhere we don’t bring players to the ground in practice. We want to protect our teammates in regard to injury;, this will enable them to be fresh and on the field during game day.”

He said that this safety-first approach has increased player participation from the low 20s in 2018 to 30 in 2019. In 2020, 40 students signed up for the team.