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When Pat Hopkins started feeling dizzy following a hit during a high school football game in fall 2012, he had no idea that it would provide a big part of the inspiration for a tactical change in America’s most popular sports video game.
Hopkins is a linebacker at Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius High. According to Cleveland NBC affiliate WKYC, Hopkins has played linebacker since he was in the fourth grade, making him a virtual test case in the effects of cumulative head contact in the sport.
The coach who oversees Hopkins’ health, Chuck Kyle, has long been worried about athletes like Hopkins who suffer from a large amount of head impacts. It was that concern as well as a handful of incidents like the aforementioned hit Hopkins suffered in a game against Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville High that inspired Kyle to serve as the high school representative on Heads Up Football, a committee commissioned by the NFL aimed at instilling and enforcing safer tackling tactics across football at all levels.
Heads Up Football includes representatives from every level and constituency within football, from youth and prep coaches to doctors and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
During a committee meeting, Kyle was trying to figure out a better way to connect with teens who would have to use the more conservative tackling methods. He thought of Hopkins, and then he thought of how often the teen and his teammates played video games, particularly football games like Madden.
Like a lightning bolt, Kyle got an idea: Why not work with the video game makers to ensure that they were installing the new tackling tactics in the next edition of their games?
Kyle brought the idea up to Goddell at a meeting at NFL league offices in New York two weeks later, and the process was almost immediately underway. Weeks later, it was confirmed that Madden 25 will feature safer Heads Up tackling techniques, particularly in the game’s “skills trainer” section which helps gamers improve their performance outside of recorded game action.
Whether or not the inclusion in Madden will precipitate a sea change in safe tackling tactics remains to be seen, but it’s still a watershed moment in the world of prep sports and video games. For once, it’s the little guys who are making a huge difference, even in a game that’s focused on the NFL.
"Kids, as many video games as they're playing now, and for as graphic as those can be and as kind of lifelike as those can be, I think it's a good learning tool," says Dr. Rick Figler, of the Cleveland Clinic.
It’s certainly not a bad idea, and in the end, any successful change it inspires is down to Kyle, Hopkins and his teammates.