Tomah Youth Football is revising its playbook for 2018.
Tackle is out, while flag football and tacklebar are in.
The program, which was all tackle for grades K-6 until 2014, is following the national trend of holding off on tackle football until adolescence.
"We're trying to be proactive .. and say, 'We have a safer game for your kids to try to play,'" said Bruce Peth, who has been active in youth football since the program was created in 1995.
The Tomah program went to flag football for K-2 in 2015, and grades 3-4 will be converted to flag this year. The changes mean tackle football doesn't begin until seventh grade with the middle school program.
Tomah athletes in grades 5-6 will play tacklebar, in which players wear traditional football equipment plus a TackleBar harness that holds two foam bars across the lower back. According to the tacklebar website, "the defender must track and engage with proper form tackling technique while wrapping the ball carrier and ripping a bar from the harness. With this approach, players stay on their feet rather than taking the ball carrier to the ground."
Peth said tacklebar teaches proper tackling technique by requiring players to grab and wrap up rather than delivering a high-speed collision.
"It's a transition where kids can grow into it," Peth said. "They're learning the skills before the physical part of it. You need to be able to tackle correctly − learn to grab."
The changes are encouraged by the NFL, and the Tomah program got a $2,000 grant from the Green Bay Packers to implement the program. The grant includes flags, tacklebar equipment, a football for every five participants and reversible Packers jerseys players can keep.
Peth acknowledged that participation in the program has been dropping. It began with 60 youngsters the first year and reached a peak of 280 a decade ago before receding to 210 last fall. He said news reports about concussions have contributed to the decline and is hopeful the changes will reverse the trend.
"I think any parent worries about their kids, no matter what sport they're in," Peth said. "Hopefully people will come back as we try something different."
Tomah Parks and Recreation Director Joe Protz believes the changes will be positive.
"The whole goal is to get as many kids to try it and enjoy it," he said.
There are five different dates that parents can register their children for youth football, which begins Tuesday, Aug. 21. Children in grades K-2 meet twice a week (Tuesday and Saturday); grades 3-6 meet three times a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday).
Peth encourages parents to register their children in advance. There is a $10 charge for the jersey for any registrants after Aug. 18.
Tomah Journal editor Steve Rundio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.