While the NFL and thousands of former players moved to resolve concussion-related lawsuits today with a $765 million dollar settlement, high school football kicks off Thursday night in El Paso with stricter rules designed to stop dangerous hits to the head.
With concern about concussions rising at all levels of the game, prep officials in the Borderland say they're prepared to make the difficult decisions necessary to protect players, including mandatory ejections for those that ignore the new rules.
"Hopefully we can limit the injuries that happen during the course of the game and we certainly see that," said Jaime Garcia, president of the El Paso chapter of the Texas Association of Sports (Football) Officials, or TASO.
When he took the field to officiate Thursday night's Chapin against Las Cruces game at Irvin Memorial Stadium, protecting players from hits like that -- which is called targeting -- was foremost in his mind.
"You're going to see a lot of these during pass plays, you're going to see a lot of these during returns, interceptions, change of possessions," Garcia said. "So we're going to have to really take a look at that and it puts a lot of pressure on all the officials."
Garcia is a veteran of 31 years of officiating football and he said if this rule been in place last year, he would have thrown at least a handful of players out of games.
"We're teaching, hit from the numbers down to the waist and you're going to be fine," he said.
But a hit to the head or neck area, whether it's with the helmet, shoulder, forearm or hand of the other player, is illegal and will now result in immediate ejection, which he explained in detail to Borderland high school coaches at a meeting with officials last week.
"There was a lot of discussion about it, but at the end of the day, we're gonna say the same thing -- the numbers to the waist," Garcia said. "Stay away from the neck and the head. We're really going to watch out for the blind side, the dirty plays, the ones that make the fans go, "Ooohh what a nice hit!' Well, it'll be a nice hit if, again, it's by the numbers to the waist, bottom line."
Garcia said the bottom line is player safety.
"The government came out, not only to the NFL but possibly the NCAA and said, "Police yourselves or we're going to come in and police it because of the concussions and the serious injuries that occur.' So we're going to do our best to try and prevent that."
The NFL calls it "Heads-up football." And while the NCAA and prep football have adopted the new rules, among the 158 youth leagues in Texas that are taking part in the program, no youth leagues in El Paso are listed on the NFL "Heads up" web site.
Garcia said his intention is to speak with the City and County, in particular the Parks and Recreation department, to make sure the new rules are taught at all levels.