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  • Writer's pictureTerry O'Neil

Former All-Pro Coaching NFL Style

A staple of the Practice Like Pros touring video clinic is American Heritage High School of Plantation, FL, coached by Pat Surtain, an 11-year cornerback with the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs, twice All-Pro, three times a Pro Bowl selection.

In mid-April at the Derek Sheely Conference in Washington, D.C., PLP founder Terry O'Neil told Surtain's story and nominated his program for an Aspen Institute national award that recognizes "exemplary and innovative high school teams...that embrace best practices and innovate new ways to...minimize injury risk."

Surtain and American Heritage were declared the winners yesterday in a lengthy USA Today feature written by Aspen Institute's Jon Solomon.  Here's an excerpt:

PLANTATION, Fla. – It’s Tuesday and Wednesday football practices in August during game week for American Heritage School, winners of four Florida state championships in the past six years.  But it doesn’t look like typical game-week practices, especially in football-crazed South Florida, where kids as young as 7 years old hit more often than this nationally acclaimed high school.

When a young cornerback mistakenly tackles a wide receiver in the end zone, the American Heritage coaches shout, “Hold him up! Hold him up!”  On his way to the sideline for a water break, the cornerback gets gently reminded by a coach of the cardinal rule at these practices:  There’s no tackling to the ground.

American Heritage, with six former NFL players on its coaching staff, practices like the pros.  Patriots Head Coach Pat Surtain, a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback, estimates American Heritage tackles at practice four times all year – twice in the spring and twice in summer scrimmages.

“Looking back at drills I did in my career, you shake your head and you’re like, ‘Man, we really did this?’” Surtain said.  “Bull in the Ring and Oklahoma Drill are outdated and comical.  Some coaches are still using it.  There’s no place in the sport for it anymore.”

It’s telling that this approach comes from a staff of former NFL players – Surtain, Daryl Porter, Earl Little, Oronde Gadsden, Anthony Harris and Van Waiters – who played a combined 43 years professionally. 

Having grown up with hitting every day, Surtain came to appreciate how former Kansas City Chiefs Coach Herm Edwards implemented no tackling to keep players fresh.  Porter remembers how much better he felt when Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Wade Phillips kept contact minimal.  Surtain said former American Heritage Head Coach Mike Rumph, another ex-NFL player, had a similar experience with Steve Mariucci and the San Francisco 49ers, so Rumph began American Heritage’s no-tackling-to-the-ground model seven years ago.

The school’s director of football operations, former Major League Baseball player Bruce Aven, played football in Texas.  His mindset was if a teammate broke his leg in practice, “We stepped over him and went on to the goal line.”

“I was skeptical of (American Heritage’s new) approach.  We were all skeptical,” Aven said.  “These guys came in and are running 90-minute practices, and you’re wondering can they be a good team? Are they going to be soft? Are they ready to play four quarters? And they were.”

Coaches and players say that coming to American Heritage can be jarring, especially with no tackling at practice. 

“At my other high school, we would go full contact in practice and tackle to the ground pretty much every day,” said linebacker Zachary Crooks, who transferred to American Heritage in February from a South Florida public school.  “Personally, I like no-tackling because tackling, once you learn it, it’s just instinct.  I think my body feels better now than this time last year.”

Said offensive lineman Andres Mestre: “You’re not constantly being smacked every single time.  It’s a relief.  It’s not having to worry about my knees every play or worrying about getting blindsided.”

To read the USA Today story, click here.


Miami Palmetto Also Practicing Like Pros

Another Florida high school featured in the Practice Like Pros traveling clinic is Miami Palmetto.  Playing in 8A, the top FHSAA classification, the Panthers are 27-6 with three state playoff appearances and only six concussions over the past three seasons.  Their policy of no tackling in regular-season practice is advocated by Assistant Coach Bobby Vernon, a former Georgetown University defensive back whose excellent book, Tackling Dummies, and series of free videos are available at


'Our Coaches Make Sure We're Safe'

Terry O'Neil and Larry White, Executive Director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) will co-present Friday, October 4, to the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) Section 1 annual meeting at the Water's Edge Resort & Spa, Westbrook, CT.

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