St. Joe's Prep football taking heads-up approach

Posted: July 30, 2014

SINCE GABE INFANTE took the reins from Gil Brooks as the head coach of St. Joseph's Prep's football program 4 years ago, the winning atmosphere never faltered.

But it wasn't just what was happening during Friday night clashes at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High's stadium that was bringing Infante and the Hawks national attention. It started with their fundamentals and mindset.

The Prep was one of 35 schools in the country that took part in USA Football's Heads Up Football program in 2013, a comprehensive platform that addresses the complex challenges of player health and safety on the field. And of those teams, the Hawks were one of only two teams to win a state championship.

Which is why the NFL Network is coming to the North Philly private school this week to film a documentary. Infante, who recently spoke on the subject at the Keystone League, said it all begins with instruction.

Some of the elements of the program are equipment-fitting, concussion education and response, and proper tackling technique.

"It starts with education, educating our parents how equipment should fit properly and fitting it properly and educating parents on concussion awareness," Infante said.

"We have a return-to-play protocol [after a concussion] and we have procedures in place to assure the fact that we are doing everything possible so that the player is able to return. The way we teach tackling . . . The drills we use and protocols for hydration and how we go about making decisions based on weather. We scale practice back if weather may lead to illness. The thing that gets the most attention is the tackling, though."

Infante's tutelage didn't just begin during preseason last autumn at Belmont Plateau, long before the Hawks' 35-10 championship win over Pittsburgh Central Catholic.

The coach is a master trainer for USA Football, which has helped bring the program to more than 25 percent of U.S. youth football organizations.

Heads Up Football includes elements that focus on proper training at every level of the field, something that Infante's players understood in early training sessions.

Steve Robinson, 18, a native of Clayton, N.J., said everyday in practice, Infante and other coaches teach him and his teammates to lead with their breastplate and not the head or the shoulder.

Robinson said the small things learned during practice were a key component in leading the Hawks to their first state title in school history.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Robinson, who played right tackle and nose guard during the Hawks' championship run. "It most definitely helped us get to a state championship. Focusing on the details in practice is one of the most important details in football. It's helped us be successful."

On Twitter: @TylerRickyTynes

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