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Can Jiujitsu Save Football From Concussions

The jiujitsu disciple who's trying to save the NFL from concussions

By Zak Keefer


INDIANAPOLIS – The first light bulb for Scott Peters went off while he was getting whupped by men half his size and twice his age. The thought he kept coming back to: How is this possible? He stood 6-3. He weighed 300 pounds. He made his living as an NFL offensive lineman. He’d grown tired of riding the stationary bike in the training room, waiting for his bum ankle to heal, so he took a chance.

He walked into a jiujitsu gym and promptly got the crap beat out of him.

“These guys were bankers, in their 50s!” Peters remembered, still in awe. “I’d never gotten worked over that bad before, not even by NFL defensive linemen.”

Next time, he brought a few teammates along. Same results. It got ugly.

“These 150-pound guys are just destroying these NFL players,” Peters said. “It was ... really enlightening.”

Enlightening — and painful, to be sure. But those beatings opened Peters’ eyes, and that jiujitsu gym changed everything for him. It altered the way he’d thought about the game he’d played his whole life, and shaped his next career. How had a bunch of average Joes — shorter, smaller, presumably weaker — generated enough force to knock him over, once, twice, a handful of times? What was their secret?

The second light bulb for Scott Peters went off after his first season infusing football players with mechanics born of the martial arts that helped those bankers whup him and his teammates back in that gym. The University of Washington had hired him to work as the football team’s strength and conditioning coach. He’d stolen bits and pieces from jiujitsu, embedding its methodology into the players’ workouts, reshaping their movements almost from the ground up.

Above all, the Huskies had to unlearn football’s greatest vice: Leading with the helmet.

Scott Peters lasted seven seasons in the NFL before opening up a mixed martial arts gym in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Photo: Joe Giannetti/Photographing Strength)

This result didn’t stun Peters: UW went on to have its best rushing season in program history. This one did: Not a single player on the roster, over the course of 13 games, suffered a concussion or a neck stinger. The trainers told him they’d never seen anything like it.

That’s when he knew. Scott Peters sold the mixed martial arts gym he’d opened outside of Phoenix and went to work.

The aim was both noble and ambitious: Save the sport of football.

That pursuit led Peters to West 56th Street this past week, where he shared his Safe Football gospel with Indianapolis Colts coaches and players. He worked with the offense and defense for three days, running through demonstrations, answering inquiries, imploring players to think differently, work differently, perform differently.

The leader of the Colts’ offensive line took a liking to Peters’ unconventional approach.

“It’s based on leverage, on generating power and using your hips, and it makes a lot of sense,” said left tackle Anthony Castonzo, a seven-year veteran. “The coolest part was that he had a reason for everything he was teaching us. It’s all based on evidence.”

And that evidence is grounded in the principles of Brazilian jiujitsu.

Put simply: Peters’ approach asks players to use their hands, not their heads. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. Players are being asked to unlearn skills they’ve developed over a decade. Most are competing for roster spots, and don’t have the practice time required to rework such a significant part of their repertoire.

But, performed correctly, Peters contends, players will reap the very rewards those average Joes used to knock him over in that jiujitsu gym all those years ago. It’s a more efficient way of generating power — “A mechanical advantage we can create for ourselves,” is how he describes it. The payoff could be immense, especially for players like Castonzo, a lineman who makes his living in the trenches, scrapping for leverage against 300-pound behemoths angling to take his quarterback’s head off.

Think of how often helmets crash into one another along the line of scrimmage.

And think of how much safer players would be if that element of the game could be drastically reduced — or even removed.

“I’m not sure if you’re ever going to be able to fully remove the head from the game,” Castonzo said. “But if we’re able to get all parties on board and minimize (its impact), that’d be a great start.”

That’s why the Colts reached out to Peters and brought him to town this past week. Peters’ method, he believes, isn’t just a safer way of playing football, it’s a better way of playing football. He’s already worked with the Redskins, Browns, Cowboys, Cardinals and Bengals. His company’s slogan — “Save the brain, save the game” — is spreading like wildfire in a league grappling with a generation of ex-players whose bodies and minds are breaking down.

As the concussion crisis threatens football’s future, and the league continues to pour buckets of money into research to combat it, Peters’ crusade, at the very least, could become a catalyst.

"I can’t be scared to get beat in practice if I’m trying

"I can’t be scared to get beat in practice if I’m trying a new technique," said Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

“We’re not saying in theory this works; we’re saying we know it works,” Peters said after leaving the Colts’ practice facility, noting players “generate 90 percent more power” when leading with their hands as opposed to their heads. “We’re giving these players a competitive advantage.”

Peters lasted seven years in the NFL as a guard and center, making stops in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Carolina and Arizona, before retiring in 2009 and opening up a mixed martial arts gym in Scottsdale, Ariz. Back when he played, he said, players called concussions “headaches.”

“We didn’t really know what we were dealing with, not with the symptoms or CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) or any of that,” Peters said. “We had no idea how severe it was. But concussions aren’t the only problem. It’s information. We have to get the right information out there. We have an obligation to help kids ... because, at the end of the day, we want to see football flourish.”

What Peters and his team keep fighting, more than anything, is that ingrained football mentality — this is how we’ve always done things. “The problem with the sport is our model for development,” he said. “In some ways it’s lift more weights and eat more food. But if you’re missing the skillset, you’re just asking for more injuries. That equates to bigger impact and more catastrophic injury. That’s why you see more players being carted off the field than ever.”

The Colts know. They’ve been among the league’s most injured squads in recent years. Indy sent 14 players to injured reserve in 2016, and five missed at least one game due to a concussion, most of any team in the AFC South. One Colt in each of the past two seasons — Clayton Geathers last fall, Tyler Varga in 2015 — didn’t return to the field for the rest of the season after suffering one.

In an effort to stem the injury bug that’s long plagued them, the Colts hired a new strength and conditioning coach, Darren Krein, before last season. Krein’s alternative approach — think CrossFit for football — was an eye-opener for players at first. And though there are a litany of factors at play when it comes to why players suffer injuries, a year after having 30 players miss at least one game to injury, the Colts trimmed that number by five in 2016.

The martial-arts-to-football notion Peters is promoting isn’t necessarily original — he remembers instructors stopping by practices during his playing days and teaching the linemen techniques from time to time. The problem was what comes next: actually applying it on a consistent basis during practice and, eventually, games.

“It was cool, but they didn’t really teach us how to bring that into football,” he said. “It was a like a foreign language to me back then.”

His company, Safe Football, does just that. It boasts 29 employees nationally, including eight former NFL players as on-field instructors. The organization has worked with 450 high schools across the country in an effort to revise player mechanics at younger ages, and Peters has worked with six NFL teams and counting, sharing the what, why and how of the approach he believes could reshape America’s most popular sport.

“We’ve had 100 percent approval and agreement (from teams and coaches) that it’s much better,” he said.

Another obstacle which Peters alluded to: the practice time required to do it right. Coaches haven’t been shy about expressing their displeasure with the workout restrictions set forth by the most recent collective bargaining agreement. In their eyes, it’s less time to teach. There’s also the immediacy factor: Most players aren’t drafted or signed to develop; they’re drafted to help the team win, and win now. NFL coaches aren’t known for their patience.

“The schemes are so complex now, and the learning curve is so steep, that it’s on-the-job training for so many young players,” Peters said. “They’re auditioning for jobs, and they just adapt.”

What gets left out, he believes: the fundamentals that could keep the game safer, and make players better in the long run.

“At the end of the day, football is a game of control,” he said. “And most players aren’t even in full control of themselves.”

Players like Castonzo, the ones with comfy contracts and years of built-up equity within the organization, could become the champions of the Safe Football movement. Castonzo delves each offseason into his game, its strengths and weaknesses, and he’s willing to hear new approaches and give them a shot. Peters left an impression on him this past week. He’s planning on continuing the work into Phase 2 of the Colts’ offseason workouts.

“Obviously, you’re not going to learn it in three days and become a master,” Castonzo said. “But I can’t be scared to get beat in practice if I’m trying a new technique. I’m always open to adding new tools to my tool belt.”

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