Old-school Penn coach Ray Priore embraces new safety measures

Old-school Penn coach Ray Priore embraces new safety measures

Penn coach Ray Priore is an old-school football man. He grew up on Long Island, and his father was his first Pop Warner coach. If there wasn’t a game in the schoolyard, they got one going in the backyard. Priore’s brother also is a college coaching lifer, now head coach at Stony Brook. Priore has been on Penn’s staff for more than three decades. He believes coaching football absolutely includes teaching toughness.

Ray Priore is a modern football man. He endorses the protective padding all his Quakers have started wearing around their helmets for practice. He endorses this era of shorter practices and less tackling. He thinks the Ivy League was right to be ahead of the curve, and the NFL, on kickoff rules.

“The more we keep people on their feet, the less concussions,” Priore said.

As for the need for toughness …

“I don’t think you need to hit each other until you’re blue in the face to teach toughness,” Priore said ahead of Saturday’s season opener against Bucknell. “I mean, Navy SEALs go in the water. People rappel from buildings. I’m not saying we’re doing that, but you can do other things to teach toughness.”

He means pushups, running steps at Franklin Field, living in the weight room. But wouldn’t Coach Blockhead at Rockhead U. argue that less practice and less hitting are ruining the game? Isn’t this Concrete Charlie’s alma mater? Has everyone gone soft?

“I don’t believe it,” Priore said, arguing his game is as good as it ever was. “Again, I’m a football coach. I played the game, love the game.”

Priore has won Ivy championships. He’s also known the worse kind of heartache, when Owen Thomas, a Quakers defensive lineman, committed suicide. Tests showed Thomas was in the early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. His 2010 suicide was the second that hit Penn’s team in five years.

Without drawing lines from those events, “I think if we can ever make the sport safer, I think we’re all behind that,” said Priore, 55. “That’s a thought process. Let’s not even talk about concussions. Let’s talk about just the heat-related deaths that are happening in sports. Well, we’ve changed our whole preseason where there was an acclimation period, there’s a protocol of progression that goes into it, because back in the old days, there used to be doubles, three practices a day — you went from zero to a hundred with no transition period.”

Penn isn’t the first team to use outside helmet padding. Temple and Penn State and other schools have been using it during practice. Testing at Penn State on linemen suggested the padding reduced the force of hits, according to Penn head athletic trainer Emily Dorman.

STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Penn’s assistant equipment manger, Tyler Piccotti, shows how the helmet cover comes off.

“The first day you put it on, it feels a little bit heavier,” said Quakers offensive tackle Tommy Dennis, holding his padded helmet after a recent practice. “But by the end of the practice, day two, day three, you don’t even notice it. That little added cushion — you’re going to get hit in the head — anything that helps, it’s super worth it.”

At first, Dennis said, the general attitude had been it’s new, it’s weird, whatever. But once the players stopped noticing it, the general team consensus switched to it’s all good. They’ve grown up hearing about the risks of multiple concussions in football. Plenty have experienced them.

“The staff and coaches, that’s why it’s good to know they’re looking out for your backs — and your heads,” said Dennis, who was second-team all-Ivy last season. “We’re paying attention. It’s good that we feel there are steps being taken.”

Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer

Penn left tackle Tommy Dennis, right, squares off with Choyce Bostian III (52) during practice.

Dorman, the trainer, explained how Penn is involved in a variety of studies, including an extensive look at concussions and other symptoms across sports that the Ivy League is conducting with the Big Ten. Research on kickoffs is clear, she said, that there are fewer concussions with kickoffs from the 40-yard line. The most interesting findings that might be released publicly soon involve a gender divide across sports.

“Women tend to have certain symptom clusters, and men seem to have different symptom clusters,” Dorman said. “And they don’t seem to match up.”

At least the world is paying more attention. Priore thought about when he grew up: Car seats? What were they?

“I used to sleep on the back dashboard when we drove,” Priore said. “My older brother had the seat; the other brother had the seat well. That’s what you did.”

“I played roller hockey growing up without a helmet,” Priore said. “Then the helmets came on, then the facemasks, then the shields.”

As for his game and the attempt to make it safer, “we’re trying to tackle it from every angle,” Penn’s coach said, no pun intended. “If all these little pieces can make it safer, why not?”

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