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A conversation with Iowa OL coach Brian Ferentz

On cellphones, video games, and concussions

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This is the third of a four-part series consisting of interviews with University of Iowa football assistant coaches. I asked them if, in their travels into schools and neighborhoods while recruiting, they noticed changes in kids and communities. We proceeded from there.

To see the comments of Bobby Kennedy and LeVar Woods, click here. Still to come: Phil Parker.

Brian Ferentz, 33, enters his fifth season as an Iowa assistant coach after working in the New England Patriots organization for four years, the last one as the tight ends coach for a team that went to the Super Bowl.

Here’s what Ferentz had to say about kids and recruiting:

“I think it’s changed a little bit every year. Every generation of kids year by year has changed. I think the high schools have changed significantly.

“Look at something like cellphone usage. Five years ago you would walk through a high school and maybe in the hallways you would see some kids on their cellphones. Today you walk into a high school and to get the kid down to see you, they text him. They’re sitting in classrooms with this technology right in front of them at all times.

“My sisters-in-law are teachers. One of them is a high school teacher. I can’t imagine trying to teach a class with 30 kids having their cellphones. That’s scary to me because it’s getting harder and harder to communicate with kids that are constantly distracted by things. That’s part of what we have to fight against once we get them here.

“We give them iPads, we want them watching tape, obviously looking at the playbook, doing things like that out of the (football) building. The iPad’s a great tool for that with the ready access to information. But there can be saturation, there can be overload. All the ADD, the ADHD and all of those things, shoot, everyone’s got sensory overload, anyway.

“That’s what I worry about a little bit with the kids as far as in high school. Maybe that’s changed a little bit.

“But there’s a lot of things that haven’t changed at all probably since I was in high school, probably since you were in high school. Some of those things just haven’t changed any. The community aspect, the team-sport aspect, kids that play multiple sports have the opportunity to do that.

“I do worry a little bit about specialization. It does happen some places. This guy only plays football and then he trains with his personal trainer in the off-season, you’re missing a pretty valuable part of high school.

“I think some places are losing some of that community aspect, at least what I see. But I’ll tell you, there’s other places I go where it’s as strong as ever. I went to a high school football game at Geneseo (Ill.), right across the river, two years ago during the season. We had a bye week and I drove over and saw a guy there, and I went and saw a game. It was as impressive a community atmosphere as I’ve seen at a high school game in my life.

“You go other places, and maybe some of that is not as strong as it once was. It kinds of depends on where you go. The small towns are typically a little bit tighter. I think the south side of Chicago down in those south suburbs is still very old school. You go to those games and people get behind those teams, communities get behind those teams. You go to some other places, it’s not quite what it once was. “Numbers seem to be down in high school football, I do notice that. Numbers seem to be down a lot of places.

I asked Ferentz about if he thought participation numbers in football might be on a permanent downward slope.

“I hope not. I really hope not. I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there. It’s kind of like the political race we’re looking at right now. It’s really hard to sort through all the rhetoric and get the actual facts. I think that’s happened a little bit with our sport. And especially the issue of head trauma, which is a serious issue and certainly is a concern for everyone.

“Safety is paramount. Without safety the guys can’t play. If the guys can’t play there’s no game, so safety’s important. But I truly think that a lot of things have been sensationalized a little bit. Even look at the former players. The only players they ever seem to trot out are the ones that have health issues.

“Well, there’s a pretty big cross-section of the general population that has health issues later in life, too, and it’s not necessarily just football that causes those things. A lot of people live a really, really tough lifestyle on their bodies and they pay for it later in life. I’ve been around a lot of guys that are old football players that look just like anyone else, just living life, who are pretty healthy. They won’t ever show you those guys.”

On more distractions/competition for kids’ time now:

“It would be hard to say no, but people probably have been saying that forever. You have your video games now, you have the phones. … I don’t understand it. I’m trying to figure it out. I’ve tried to keep an open mind, but it seems a little silly.

“I asked somebody once ‘What do you get for collecting the dinosaurs (he may have meant Pokemon), what do you get?’ He said ‘You don’t get anything.’ What’s the point of going around and doing all the work and collecting things? Most things in life you do a lot of work, and hard work, right? You get rewards. They’re not always material, but you get some rewards. I don’t think getting an award or badge on your phone is a great reward. But I’ll tell you what, it’s real, it’s a part of the younger generation that’s a real thing to them.

“I met a high school coach this spring who I thought had a great idea, has really done wonders for his program. He set up a system that was very similar to what these kids have in (video game) “Call of Duty.” They get rankings or experience, they get basically awards for doing certain things and they’re rating goes up. He created that with an off-season program in his football, and that really improved engagement and involvement.

“So I give him credit for coming to them. I think we could all probably learn a little bit from that.

“But boy, it is a little scary when guys get excited about getting something on a video game. That just doesn’t seem like real life to me.”

I asked Ferentz if Iowa football players were different from other college students, and how.

“What we’re trying to do is identify guys that will be able to be successful in our culture. Are they any different from your average high school guy? I hope so.

“Because we’re going to ask our players to be different from an average college kid. That doesn’t mean they’re better than them or smarter or any of those things. We’re just going to demand a lot more out of them from a time standpoint, from a commitment standpoint, nutrition, go down the list, things we do on these fields.”

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