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www.sportseventsmagazine.com February 2017 27 t SPORT Report The Birth of Rocksolid Joey LaRocque has a vision to make football safer while maintaining a childlike love of the game. That passion led the former pro linebacker to start Rocksolid in 2013. The company produced the first soft-shell head protection designed specifically for football, as well as soft-shell pads and mouthguards. Rocksolid's helmets and pads are designed for flag football play and tackle football practice. The company has "overshot its projections expeditiously," LaRocque said. The "a ha" moment came when he was helping coach high school football in Southern California and witnessed a collision in a non-contact football drill that resulted in a player needing 14 stitches. LaRocque saw the opportunity to create soft-shell head protection for non- contact drills. The company soon had its soft-shell helmets in 50 programs across California. He brought others onboard, moved the company to Dallas and designed Rocksolid to create a lifestyle along with safety equipment. As research indicated serious long-term effects of repetitive head injuries, the NFL began addressing the issue. The turning point for Rocksolid came when NFL teams began wearing soft-shell helmets and soft pads at practice. Teams also reduced the number of contact practice days for players. And the number of injuries dropped. "It shows this is the best way to play football," LaRocque said. "When you remove the helmets, you are not having the face masks hitting on every play. It's about using your hands, all about techniques. It removes repetitive head injury." Once NFL players were wearing non-contact gear for practice, colleges and high schools followed. Rocksolid soft-shell helmets are now worn by 10 NFL teams and 45,000 high school athletes. And 200,000 kids will be wearing the products by the end of next flag football season. "That's what we're most proud of," LaRocque said. But the company is about more than selling soft-sided helmets. Football par- ticipation rates have waned in recent years and LaRocque saw the opportunity to re-ignite passion. Players who have a great experience on the field at a young age take that love of the game with them. "We felt if we could make a really big impact at the youth level, we could make a difference in the game," he said. Leagues that sign up with Rocksolid receive myriad resources to help them grow. "We are teaching new directions — what we call best practices — and it's taking off," LaRocque said. "People are responding so well. It's about changing the experi- ence — people having fun playing football. It's the best game out there." n the National Youth Football Championships for more than 40 years. Gates said it is different than a lot of competitions because any team in good standing with its league can apply. Teams don't have to earn spots. Teams are hand-matched based on age, weight and talent, and all teams are guaran- teed to play two games. The championships give kids an opportuni- ty to play on high school fields with a sound system and scoreboard. "You want them to leave having had a good time … promote a love of football," Gates said. Flag and touch leagues are also contribut- ing to football's overall success by growing that interest and love of the sport. The United States Flag & Touch Football League (USFTL) has more than 10,000 teams and is experiencing 10 to 20 percent growth annually, especially in the youth pro- gram, said Michael Cihon, founder and CEO. "A major increase." At the USFTL Championships in January, 440 teams with more than 16,000 players participated, Cihon said. Cihon attributes the increase to the concus- sion awareness in recent years surrounding tackle football. More parents are getting kids involved "because of the non-contact aspect of flag football," he said. The USFTL stresses the non-contact aspect of the sport and mouth guards are mandatory for players. Headgear is not yet mandatory, he said. Rocksolid, a company that produces soft- shell helmets and soft pads for touch and tackle players, also promotes a culture and a vision, said founder Joey LaRocque, a former NFL player. Young kids who play flag football love wearing the helmets and feeling like "real" football players, he said. The padding helps calm parents who may be a "little nervous" about their kids playing football. "They are wearing these helmets and it is the cutest thing in the world," LaRocque said. "So it's all about the experience." Ultimately, that experience can get more kids to sign up for flag and touch football, keep them playing and help players transition to tackle. And that's good for the sport overall. n Rocksolid Soft-shell helmets and soft pads are used in flag football programs, as well as tackle practices.