State Stories

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IHSA Football Teams Unite In Name Of Safety With Play Smart. Play Hard. Helmet Decals

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The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) announced today that varsity high school football teams throughout the state will wear Play Smart. Play Hard. helmet decals (shown above) throughout the season in a show of solidarity amongst coaches and players.

“Communities throughout Illinois rally around their high schools every night of the week,” said IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman. “This is a chance to unite statewide at a time when high school sports, and especially high school football, are under significant scrutiny.”

Play Smart. Play Hard. is a player safety initiative the IHSA unveiled last May aimed at empowering student-athletes, parents, coaches and fans to educate themselves on player safety issues and the steps that have been taken in Illinois to protect student-athletes.

"Illinois has been on par with or ahead of the curve on nearly every player-safety issue over the past decade-plus,” said Hickman. “Collaboratively, the IHSA, top medical experts, high school coaches, the state legislature and the NFHS have all worked together in the best interest of student-athlete safety. We began the Play Smart. Play Hard. campaign to spotlight the many efforts that have been taken without unnecessary fanfare.”

In a letter enclosed with the decals to head football coaches, the IHSA has asked coaches to talk with their players about what the decals represent.

“About 99% of the schools competing in IHSA football this fall won’t win a state championship and over half won’t even make the playoffs,” said Hickman. “Yet, our experiences have shown us that irrespective of how many games a team wins this year, or any year for that matter, coaches have the safety and well-being of their players ahead of all else. They believe the game is going to make their players better students now and better citizens later in life.”

Football coaches from all over the state have reacted positively to displaying a physical symbol of the solidarity that currently exists among teams. A few select quotes are provided below:

Scott Baum, Niles West High School Head Coach:
“The Niles West Football Program will proudly display the "Play Hard. Play Smart." decals on our helmets this season. Like all the decals we wear on our helmets, the "Play Hard, Play Smart." decals will have important meaning to our program. These decals represent the work our coaches, players and the IHSA have done to keep the game of football safe for our student-athletes. In a time where people are trying to chase people away from our sport, the work the IHSA has done for our student-athletes safety is greatly appreciated.”

Roy Gully, Springfield High School Head Coach:
"There is no doubt in my mind that the IHSA is going above and beyond what is necessary to keep our kids safe. The protocols and rules that have been implemented over the past few years have made the sport of football the safest it has ever been in its history. I stand in solidarity with the IHSA and support them as a coach. I also stand with the IHSA as a parent because my son happens to be a freshman playing football this season."

Zontavius Johnson, North Lawndale College Prep High School Head Coach (Chicago):
“The North Lawndale College Prep football coaching staff and players stand firmly with the IHSA and our fellow teams throughout the state. Our commitment as coaches is to making the game we all love safe for all student athletes.”

Jason Newburger, Burlington Central High School Head Coach:
"As we move into a new generation of football coaches, I think that the ways in which we have decided, as a group, to make the game safer will allow even more athletes to enjoy the benefits of football. I believe that the perception of football, from the outside looking in, is much different than the way players and families of players view football with the new measures we have taken to make the game safer. As the groups of players that were in youth football programs when physical and educational initiatives such as "heads up tackling" and "Play Smart. Play Hard." were put in place start to come through the high schools, the game of football will never be safer. Coaches have pooled resources to find the best way to get their teams prepared utilizing the least amount of full contact tackling each week, and the on-field product and excitement on Friday nights haven't missed a beat. With these new measures, and a countless numbers of energetic, caring coaches, there are communities all across Illinois whose numbers and excitement level for football are increasing rapidly after a small dip in recent years. As a head football coach in an incredible community, I feel very fortunate that I get to impact the lives of 100 of our hardest-working student-athletes on a daily basis. With these continued measures across the country and in Illinois, that number should only grow."

Joe Ryan, Sycamore High School Head Coach:
“Player safety has always been our top priority. The Play Smart. Play Hard. program reinforces this to our students, parents and our community. This will also help to emphasize how important it is to educate everyone involved with high school athletics. Not only do we support the IHSA 100% percent with this program, we applaud them for being a national leader in player safety for all sports.”