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Patriots, USA Football host annual forum for youth football commissioners

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With concerns for player safety at an all-time high, the New England Patriots and USA Football are leading the charge to change the culture of the sport and create a smarter, safer way to coach and play the game.

On May 11, youth league commissioners from throughout the region gathered at the USA Football New England Youth Leadership Forum to discuss best practices and new ideas to improve player safety for participants at the sport's grassroots level. The event, held at Gillette Stadium, was hosted by the Patriots in conjunction with USA Football, the official youth league development partner of the NFL.

USA Football regional manager Ed Passino facilitated the conversation and focused on several important aspects of youth football, including concussion recognition and response, coaching education, equipment fitting and tackling technique.

These topics are the pillars of USA Football's new Heads Up Football program, a comprehensive approach to improving player safety that already has been adopted by more than 2,000 youth leagues throughout the country for the 2013 season.

"This year was an outstanding forum as Ed discussed the new Heads Up program," said Joe Panniello, president of the Pop Warner Conference of Eastern Massachusetts and a forum attendee for the last six years. "I always find the forum very informative and walk away learning something new to bring to my conference."

John Cunha, president of the Rhode Island Pre-Teen Football League, also found value in the Heads Up Football presentation.

"I enjoyed the contact section, as far as how to tackle properly," he said. "I'm going to make every coach join, and it will be mandatory for all coaches in our league to be certified into the Heads Up program."

For many forum attendees, the highlight of the event was the open, collaborative discussion between youth league commissioners. Throughout the conversation, league leaders discussed common issues and possible solutions to their problems.

"Everyone coming out of this forum learns alternative solutions to issues we as administrators deal with constantly," Panniello said.

For youth league leaders, the conversation doesn't stop there. In order to create an effective, supportive environment for coaches and players, the parents must be involved.

"I really like the way USA Football is involving the parents," Cunha said. "Safety for the kids is our thing right now, especially with all the news surrounding concussions. It's important to get the parents involved. USA Football has parents doing exactly what the kids are doing, so that they can correct their children's technique. They are concerned with their children's safety and should be more involved with it."

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