PHOENIX — Nick Lowery played football at the highest level for 18 years, but more than two decades after his 1996 retirement he continues to impact the game by improving the safety of the sport.
Head injuries are the game’s biggest problem, and the three-time Pro Bowl kicker is trying find a solution by teaming with coaches and doctors to bring safer tackling technology to football.
“My passion is preserving the NFL game, as it should be, and that only happens by not sticking your head in the sand and facing up to the difficult truths,” Lowery said. “And solutions are here that will already drastically improve the game.”
At the Nick Lowery Foundation’s second annual Future of Football event in Phoenix this year, Lowery unveiled one of the possible methods to increasing player safety: The Mobile Virtual Player (MVP) tackling dummy, which was on display as part of the Barrow Neurological Institute’s Concussions: 2017 Conference.
The robotic MVP, which costs more than $8,000, emulates a football player while eliminating contact between athletes. The 5-foot-11, 190 pound robotic dummy can “run” a 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds.
It’s a new, preventive way of combating head injuries, said Dr. Christopher Giza, a professor of pediatric neurology and neurosurgery at UCLA, who attended the conference.
“When we’ve talked about concussions in years past, we’ve always talked about secondary prevention,” Giza said. “An injury occurs, the player is identified, then treated accordingly.
“Something like this is an interesting primary-prevention alternative, where you can still do sport-specific training while also reducing the likelihood of a friendly-fire, player-on-player injury.”
Lowery, an Arizona resident for 20 years, saw the result of concussions firsthand during his NFL career. His friend and teammate with the Kansas City Chiefs, Mike Webster, was the first former NFL player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy following his death from a heart attack in 2002 at age 50.
A progressive degenerative disease of the brain, CTE is often found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
The firestorm following Webster’s death focused attention on the CTE problem in football. Although concussions are down more than 11 percent in the NFL over the last two seasons, according to the latest data released by the league, Lowery isn’t satisfied.
Lowery said the Barrow conference is able to bring together the worlds of sports and medicine, something he believes does not happen often enough.
“Until a year ago, doctors, players and coaches were never in the same room discussing this,” Lowery said. “You create a language by talking to each other, which doesn’t seem to happen in other parts of the country.”
Although MVPs are now used by eight NFL teams, Lowery has his sights set on a younger generation of athletes. He wants all high school football programs in America to begin using the device within five to six years.
The sport’s future may depend on such innovations, as youth football participation declines amid parents’ concern about the safety of the game for their kids.
According to a 2016 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, 31 percent of parents would not let their child play competitive football. A similar survey done by University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 2015 said one in three parents live in fear that their child will suffer a concussion while playing contact sports.
USA Football, the national governing body for ameteur football in America, responded to the issue with player safety initiatives such as Heads Up Football, which aims to teach players the correct, safest way to play the game. The amateur football organization has made changes to its league guidelines, such as eliminating special teams, to reduce risk.
Dr. Gerard Gioia, who sits on USA Football’s medical advisory board and serves as team neuropsychologist for the Baltimore Ravens, said preserving football can only be done if safety is the priority.
“Our job is not to save the sport, our job is to save the kids and make sure their health and safety is number one,” Gioia said. “If we do that, then the sport has nothing to worry about.”
Lowery’s latest vision for player safety began at Dartmouth University, where he got his undergrad degree. A group of graduate students and doctors helped to develop the MVP, and Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens was the first Division I coach to fully integrate the robotic dummy. Teevens has completely eliminated player contact during practice.
Teevens said head injuries in his program have dropped more than 80 percent since he first starting using the dummies during practice in 2010. Although the tactic was initially met with resistance from his players, Teevens said they quickly realized how much fresher they felt on game day.
“I’m not convinced, and never will be, that it takes away from toughness of players or hurts their skill set,” he said. “We tackle more than anyone in the country because of the drill work that we do. (The MVP) simulates more closely what’s going on in the game on Saturday.”
The new device has also served as a recruiting tool, especially for a school like Dartmouth with high standards both on and off the field. Teevens said almost every parent he meets with asks about the MVP and how it’s used within the program.
But Teevens believes it’s not the players or their parents who need to buy in, it’s his fellow coaches.
“We’re looking at attrition, youth programs are dropping off, high school numbers are going down, there’s a real threat to the game,” Teevens said. “If we don’t change the way we coach the game, we won’t have a game to coach, guys need to think about that.”
Coaches in the Ivy League seem to have heeded Teeven’s warning. The league in February voted to eliminate all full-contact hitting from practices.
The MVP is just one of the safety measures being researched by Lowery and his foundation. At last year’s first Future of Football event in Phoenix, the conversation centered on the betterment of helmets and reporting tactics used by teams.
And the dialogue sparked a change, according to Lowery.
“We used to think that someone with a concussion should be isolated in a dark room and have no activity for many days, but that’s actually the worst thing you can do,” Lowery said.
“That is something that went from being recognized last year at this event and then acted upon,” he said. “That’s very exciting for me, to know that we are here making measurable, visible progress at a very nice rate.”
That progress is something Lowery hopes to continue. He said his goal is to reduce football-related concussions by 60 percent.
“I believe I was put on this Earth to use my experience to bring people together and solve something like this, which is a solvable problem,” Lowery said. “We’ll never get rid of concussions, but we can make it so football is not such an awesomely dangerous sport.”