Brendan Proulx knows how devastating a concussion can be.
The Kildonan-East Reiver fullback, a Grade 10 student, suffered a brain injury last season that kept him out for five weeks as a member of the East Side Eagles bantam program. He said the injury was a result of tackling.
Proulx described experiencing headaches, dizziness, and sensitivity to light.
"I was essentially a vampire," Proulx said. "It felt good once it was gone, but the whole time while I had it, it was just miserable."
In order to reduce the hit of concussions on the team, the Reivers have been bringing in local rugby coaches for the last several seasons in order to teach players a way of tackling that leaves the head less prone.
Speaking after the padless rugby practice session on Aug. 25, Proulx said he feels more confident in his approach to taking down opponents.
"I’ve learned how to get hit without being scared of injury," Proulx explained.
The Reivers could be considered pioneers of sorts. The St. Paul’s Crusaders, consistently dominant in both football and rugby, have long strongly encouraged their football players to play rugby as well. The Reivers don’t have a rugby team, but head coach Jason Hawkins still felt there was something he could do to facilitate a cross-over.
"When the head’s out of it, it’s a safer tackle, and that way, you’re not leading with your head," Hawkins said. "I knew that rugby gets the head out of the tackle, and that’s what I want to teach my players."
When he joined Kildonan-East as an assistant seven years ago, Hawkins brought in the husband-and-wife team of former Winnipeg Wasps RFC player Scott Harland and former Sturgeon Creek Rowdies RFC player and current referee Charlene Bakke to demonstrate the rugby tackle in order to combat head injuries. Bakke and Hawkins had previously worked together at Robert Andrews School.
"He knew that I had done rugby, so he gave us a call up, and we came out and tried it out, and it was just really successful," said Bakke, who now teaches at Bertrun E. Glavin Elementary School. "The kids start off really nervous about being in contact as soon as you take all that equipment off of them.
"By the end of the practice, you can see a lot of them have gained a lot of confidence."
Harland, a Southdale resident, reasoned that once players see how aggressively and effectively they can tackle without equipment, jumping back into pads should be a cinch.
"You’ve got to force the centre of gravity, so a rugby tackle is much more of a wrestling takedown than it is a collision takedown," explained Harland, who also serves at the technical director for the North America Caribbean Rugby Association. "You’ve got to wrap the legs, drive the body off of the legs, off of the centre of gravity. You don’t do that just by hitting someone hard — they might bounce off you and keep running.
"You’ve got to grapple them, and then unbalance them."
Hawkins said he couldn’t say for sure whether the number of head injuries has been reduced as a result of the partnership, but feels the numbers would be higher without it. He’s also seen other skills develop, as the Reiver defenders have been able to strip balls from opposing ball carriers to stall drives.
The strategy recently received a boost when the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks released a video in late July on proper tackling. The 21-minute video spliced together footage from Seahawks game footage with rugby footage, highlighting the similarity between Seattle’s approach and the American national rugby team.
"It’s nice for the Super Bowl champs to catch up with good practice," Harland said.
Winnipeg High School Football League commissioner Rick Henkewich said in an email the league doesn’t compile concussion statistics, but follows Football Canada’s Safe Contact modules.