As I drove up to Baltimore on a rainy, cold day in March to watch the Baltimore Cobras of the American 7s Football League play in a scrimmage, the words of A7FL co-founder Ryan DePaul kept running through my head.
“We want to save football. We want to save the world’s best sport.”
On the surface, it sounds crazy that football, the most popular sport in America, needs saving. And it sounds even crazier to think that the A7FL — a seven-on-seven, full tackle, semi-pro football league where the players wear no pads and no helmets — is the white knight.
But as a diehard football fan, it’s becoming harder and harder to rectify my love for the game with the mounting evidence that it inflicts irreversible brain damage on many of its players. And I’m not alone. NFL players are retiring earlier, hoping to take back control of their bodies and health, and parents are steering their kids away from the sport — youth participation in football has plummeted over 25 percent in the last six years.
So, on an otherwise uneventful Sunday, I found myself on a football field surrounded by run-down buildings in northwest Baltimore, talking with Cobras head coach Marcus Cole as his team prepped for the equivalent of a preseason game against its crosstown rivals.
Cole is a soft-spoken, affable man in his early 30s, who talks passionately about his wife, daughter, two jobs, part-time gig as an Uber driver, and church, and absolutely beams when he talks about the Cobras and A7FL. Within minutes, he had me convinced of two things: The A7FL had the power to bring together and inspire the young men of his community, many of whom are in desperate need of direction after high school, and the Cobras were going to win the championship this year.
But, as I watched the players line up for the scrimmage to begin, without any of the protective football gear that usually signals game time, I was unsure how this could possibly be the lifeline that the sport as a whole needed.
DePaul didn’t set out to save football. He merely wanted a way to keep playing the sport he loved after repeated concussions forced him to step away from competitive football in college.
So 11 years ago he started a grassroots league, TownBeef, in New Jersey. The goal wasn’t necessarily to reduce the likelihood of injuries in the sport, just to make it more accessible, with smaller teams, no pads or helmets, and the elimination of skill positions such as punting and kicking. He was essentially hoping to create the football version of a pickup basketball game, just with slightly more structure.
It took a while for DePaul to recognize the real benefit to this format: the lack of concussions.
“It wasn’t until years later until we started thinking that it was safer,” he said.
That’s because, as the players told me, since their heads aren’t protected, they are much more careful about how they land and tackle. In this case, vulnerability leads to necessary, potentially life-saving caution.
“I really enjoy it. It’s more fun than actual football,” Josh Runk, a 20-year-old offensive lineman who has been on the team for two years, said. “The hits are the same, but now you have to form tackle. Technique is important. And you have that fear of, hey, you could be hurt if you don’t do this right.”
The sport grew in popularity thanks to YouTube videos and word of mouth, and two years ago, DePaul joined forces with co-founder and CEO Sener Korkusuz to create the semi-pro traveling league, A7FL. Currently, there are 24 teams in the A7FL, spread throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. There are eight weeks of games in the spring, followed by a four-week playoff. The players don’t get paid, but the league is working on getting more sponsors and expanding.
The A7FL operates under the same rules as TownBeef did: no pads, no helmets, a narrower field (37 yards compared to 53.3 yards). Instead of special teams, the league uses a scintillating 3-on-1 version of a “punt return” to facilitate change of possessions. There is no center, the quarterback starts with the ball in his hand, and there are only two linemen on the offense.
Unknown iFrame situation
Football is synonymous with skill, strategy, and toughness. So the concern that most people have — or, at least, the concern that I had — was that without the pads and helmets, and with the smaller lineups and lack of weight on the offensive and defensive lines, football in the A7FL would look like flag football; chaotic and fun, but far from engaging and invigorating the way the traditional game is. Risk aside, tackling and contact is in an integral part of the game’s popularity.
But after the first few plays, I was hooked. There were sacks, interceptions, phenomenal catches, annoying drops, adept tackles, and enough jaw-dropping speed to keep me thoroughly enthralled. The sport is still fast-paced, dynamic, and incredibly exciting. The players are passionate and skilled, and the format provides space for the same mixture of play design vs. raw, instinctive talent that attracts fans to the traditional game.
The formations and lack of linemen took some time to get used to, but I found that the smaller numbers created thrilling one-on-one match-ups. It’s often challenging to appreciate expressions and individuality in football because there are 22 players on the field at any given time, all covered in armor-like uniforms. But there is nowhere to hide in the A7FL, and without the pads and helmets, it’s much easier to appreciate the players’ personalities and playing styles.
“I really enjoy it. It’s more fun than actual football.”
And trust me, the Cobras had personality to spare. By day, the teammates, almost all 18–30 years old, are policemen and handymen, custodians and businessmen. But on the weekends they transform into their Cobras alter egos: Cruel-T, Slick, James Love. (Okay, James Love is actually Cole’s alter ego, one that has apparently retired.)
That Sunday they were men on a mission, beyond pumped up for the first game of the season, even if it was just a scrimmage. There was an urgency to every play, and like a finely-tuned machine, they instantly went up 28–0 over the Warlords, another Baltimore team that plays by A7FL rules but isn’t elite enough to compete in the 24-team semi-pro league.
There was dancing after good plays, and plenty of scuffling and teasing after bad ones. One offensive linemen kept complaining about his defensive counterpart pulling his jersey — “He’s going to have to buy me dinner if he keeps this up, and I’m not a cheap date.” There was even a deflate-gate controversy — the losing team was infuriated because the ball in play was so soft by halftime.
Cole was always on the lookout for a coaching moment, even interrupting our conversation to run out on the field to correct a player’s form or focus between plays.
It was just football, through and through — but this time there wasn’t a single hit during the game that made me feel guilty for enjoying myself. Not once did I hold my breath after a helmet-to-helmet collision, or say a silent prayer that a player would get up after a particularly brutal fall.
The first football helmets are believed to have been invented in the 1890s, and were solely made of leather. The helmet was added as a safety measure, a way to protect heads in the increasingly violent game. In the 1940s, the chin strap was added and plastic helmets gained popularity. By 1943, the NFL required all players to wear helmets. In the ’50s and ’60s, the face mask evolved to its current state, and in the ’80s, the polycarbonate helmets we know today became popular.
However, as the helmet evolved, it became a weapon by itself. Players frequently lead tackles with their heads, or fail to maneuver their head away from the ground during a fall. And while helmets do protect the skull, they don’t prevent the brain from swishing back and forth inside of it.
Helmets today are so hard, comfortable, and secure that they make players feel invincible. That’s why top players and coaches have proposed getting rid of them altogether.
“If you want to prevent concussions, take the helmet off. Play old-school football with the leather helmets, no facemask,” former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward said in 2012. “When you put a helmet on you’re going to use it as a weapon, just like you use shoulder pads as a weapon.”
Nate Ebner, a safety on the New England Patriots, agreed with this due to his experience playing rugby without a helmet. “Everyone playing the game has an understanding that no one has a helmet on, so it’s kind of a group effort to keep your head out of the contact area,” he said. “As a tackler you have to use your shoulders, your body, and you can’t just dive in with your head.” (While rugby has had its own problems with concussion protocols, it is generally considered much safer for the head than American football.) Legendary coach Mike Ditka has suggested the same thing.
Critics of this concept always point out that in today’s game, removing helmets and pads would do more harm than good, opening players up to skull fractures, facial injuries, and hemorrhaging because of the speed of the game and weight of the players. And that’s likely true, which is why the other modifications made by the A7FL, such as shrinking the size of the teams and eliminating dangerous punt and kick returns, are so significant. The risk of injury isn’t removed altogether in the A7FL — it never will be in sport — but it is mitigated in smart ways that still preserve the integrity of the game.
Going forward, both DePaul and Korkusuz know that the key to the A7FL’s success is going to be proving, beyond anecdotes, that their league is significantly safer. Last fall, researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that the regular helmetless-tackling drills reduced the number of overall head impacts suffered by 28 percent. Keep in mind, this improvement was discovered just by removing helmets for very limited amounts of time in practice — players still wore helmets during the game.
“If you want to prevent concussions, take the helmet off.”
Now, the A7FL is starting its own study. This season, one A7FL team in New Jersey has been fitted with vector mouthguards from i1 Biometrics, which will monitor when and exactly where a player receives a head impact, and livestream that information to a computer on the sidelines. There are already college and high school teams across the country fitted with these mouthguards, so the researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), where the study is being conducted, will be able to compare the data collected in the A7FL with data in the traditional football game.
Time is of the essence, though. Football’s concussion problem isn’t going away.
In recent weeks, a top NFL official finally admitted that there was an “unequivocal link” between football and CTE, the devastating degenerative brain disease that causes dementia, depression, and even death. Though others in the league have continued to deny and deflect the problem in the days since, studies back up the connection.
Last October, a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University found CTE in 87 of the 91 former NFL players’ brains it studied. Superstars such as Frank Gifford and Junior Seau have been posthumously diagnosed with the disease, but so have players without long NFL careers under their belts. Tyler Sash, a former NFL player who died at 27, had CTE despite only playing 23 games in the league. Ryan Hoffman, a former football player at the University of North Carolina, who never made it to the pros, was posthumously diagnosed with the disease too. He died, homeless and drug addicted, at age 41. In December, a study by the Mayo Clinic found evidence of CTE in 21 of 66 brains of former amateur athletes who played contact sports. However, none of the 198 brains studied that didn’t have a history of playing contact sports showed signs of CTE.
The NFL can promote improved safety protocols and encourage better tackling technique, but the truth is, the game isn’t safe now — adding more urgency to any effort to protect the athletes while allowing them to continue playing the sport they love. Unfortunately, the NFL is as stubborn as it is successful, and even the most minute changes to the sport are met with outcries by football purists that the sport they love so much is losing its identity.
DePaul’s mission — to save football — is a lofty one. But he’s not delusional enough to think it’s going to happen overnight.
The first step is to keep growing the A7FL as it is now. Attract more players and sponsors, add in more teams, become self-sufficient enough to travel in planes around the country for games, and pay the players. Meanwhile, after the study with NJIT is completed, DePaul wants to focus on creating an improved model that youth football programs across the world can adopt. That will not only help attract more parents to the sport, but teach children the proper tackling techniques that will last a lifetime.
“I’m seeing a huge decline in youth football, and that makes me sad, because I know in my heart the values I’ve learned,” DePaul said. He’s confident enough in the accessibility, safety, and watchability of the sport that he thinks the A7FL’s popularity will skyrocket — once people tune in.
“After we prove [that the game is safer], the sky is the limit,” he said.
Meanwhile, as DePaul is focused on changing the football world, the Cobras, who finished in fourth place last year, are hellbent on winning it all this season. They won their opening scrimmage against the Warlords 36–6 — it didn’t even feel that close — and are very optimistic about their chances this year.
“We’re going for the championship,” Darrell Harris, a 24-year-old defensive tackle on the Cobras said. “We came up short last year. We’ve got some things to work on — game by game.”