Coach profile: Tom Annett’s quest for Safe Contact #CoachesWeek
One play changed the life of Tom Annett, and put him on a path to helping develop Safe Contact as we know it today.
On September 13, 2002, Tom Annett, and the rest of the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks faced the powerhouse Western Mustangs in week three of OUA action.
Annett, a middle linebacker, was in his third year with Laurier after starting his university career at Windsor where he was named the Lancers football team’s Rookie of the Year in 1998.
Western called an inside run in the third quarter, facing a crucial second, and short. It was the play that changed the life of Tom Annett forever.
Annett met the running back in the hole, delivering a crushing tackle that sent the ball carrier back behind the line of scrimmage. The young linebacker led the tackle with the crown of his helmet, and as he ran off the field pumping his fist in excitement, he began to feel a sharp piercing pain in the base of his neck.
“Foolishly, I convinced myself that it was just a stinger, and finished the game,” said Annett.
Little did he know, it would be his last competitive football game as a player.
The outcome of the violent collision was a fractured cervical vertebrae, and blown out disk in Tom’s cervical spine.
“While in the hospital awaiting surgery, I engaged in deep self-reflection. I must have revisited that career ending tackle hundreds of times in my mind. A split-second lapse in judgment led to flawed tackling technique that almost paralyzed me for life.”
When his mind cleared, the newly retired linebacker realized how fortunate he was to be on his way to a full recovery.
“I was in a section of the hospital where people were being informed that they’d never walk again. This really put things into perspective, and gave me a renewed appreciation for life. I realized how important football was to me.”
“Coming to the realization that I would never play competitive football again hurt, but I had no regrets about my football career. The memories, life lessons, and relationships I made through football were priceless. I wanted to give back to the game, and coaching was my calling.”
From that day forward, Annett committed to coaching a safer tackling technique to his players.
“I wanted to make a commitment to do everything I could in my power for one of my players not to suffer an injury like I did. I took a very keen interest in tackling technique – I went to as many clinic presentations, watched as many videos, and read as many books as I could to see how coaches were doing it all across Canada, and the United States.”
“I just pulled ideas from all of them to develop my philosophy, and drill progressions. That’s what laid the foundation for the material that I’d later produce for the Safe Contact program.”
For Annett the process of teaching a better way to tackle was just like anything else in football, and teaching – talking to others, researching, and making the material come to life.
“I would talk to a lot great coaches, see the materials that they produced (videos, books), what they were doing in common, what some of the buzzwords were, teaching progressions, and I took what I liked, and developed it further through trial, and error. Through years of putting that together, that’s how it happened.”
“Initially, when I started making that material it was just for me, and a resource to share with my staff of how I want tackling coached in our program. From there I kind of went nuts – before I knew it, I had over 100 slides!”
Following graduation from Laurier, Annett moved on to teachers college then started his career in Brampton. He spent a year teaching high school at North Park, where he also began as defensive coordinator of the school’s senior football team – his first real coaching experience since helping coach kids while in grade 12. The following year, he moved back home to Sault Ste. Marie. After spending a year helping out with the school’s junior program, Annett was thrust into the role of the senior team’s head coach at his alma mater, Sir James Dunn.
In 2008, while still teaching, and coaching at Sir James Dunn, Annett began to experiment with the hurry-up no-huddle offence.
“After the season, we realized how much more productive our offence was when we operated at a hurry-up no-huddle tempo. That off-season, our staff read all the books and watched all the videos we could find on no-huddle offences.”
“In 2009, we were 100% committed to being a no-huddle team from the first day of spring camp. It allowed us to maximize the talent on offence that we had.”
The 2009 Sir James Dunn football team went undefeated, and won its OFSAA (provincial championship) Bowl game, and were one of the top teams in Ontario.
The following summer (2010), Annett adopted the same no-huddle offence with the OVFL’s Sault Sabercats, and experienced their most successful season yet, finishing first in their division, and had the top offence in the league.
Having already presented a similar no-huddle offence presentation at Laurier’s clinic, Annett, now a teacher at Korah High School, presented at the inaugural Football Canada Coaches Association Convention in Burlington, Ontario.
An educator by trade, Annett was in his element teaching his no-huddle offence. He was rated one of the clinic’s top presenters along with former Montreal Alouettes head coach, and current Baltimore Ravens, offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman.
Annett was asked to return as a presenter for the 2012 convention where he spoke on another spread concept – quads. The presentation was well received by coaches who ran similar offences, however, he could tell that the presentation only resonated with that small segment of coaches who were already using spread concepts in their offensive systems.
At the end of the 2012 edition of the national coaches convention, Football Canada ran a Safe Contact pilot to fine-tune the content, and receive feedback from coaches.
Tom Annett was one of the coaches who stuck around for the pilot led by long-time Football Canada coach education overseer, Bob Swan, and technical coordinator at the time, Josh Sacobie.
Coincidentally, among those also in attendance was master learning facilitator Doug Krochak – who happened to train Tom as a NCCP competition-introduction learning facilitator so that he could train local coaches in northern Ontario.
“It kind of turned into a group discussion with the coaches,” said Annett. “Doug remembered an activity we did during his facilitation where I talked about how I teach tackling – he really enjoyed it, and asked if I’d like to come up, and show what I had done.”
“I just happened to have all those slides that I was working on but it wasn’t fully put together yet – I showed a few things that I had up there, and they really liked it.”
Tom Annett’s slides turned out to be a perfect complement to what had already been developed for Safe Contact. Instead of presenting on spread concepts at next year’s national coaches convention, he could present on a topic that had universal appeal to all coaches.
“The following year (2013), they asked if I’d be willing to make that presentation, and when I did it, the feedback was just phenomenal!”
“It got a lot of really positive feedback, and then that’s when we started talking about putting this together so that it can be launched nation-wide. They wanted it to be packaged, so that someone could get this material, and go teach it to other people.”
Paired with new Football Canada technical coordinator, Aaron Geisler, and director of sport at the time, Rick Sowieta, Tom Annett began to fine-tune the content he’d spent years developing independently for his team as part of the NCCP. Safe Contact was built from a topic covered during training into its own NCCP module.
During his initial development process, the Sault Ste. Marie native had been inspired by the work of many great defensive minds.
The humble coach is quick to credit those who laid the foundation for his concepts including Bill, and Kyle Williams who used to run the football coaches professional growth association, based in California.
Another inspiration was Chris Ash, a former University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator who’s now in the same role with national champion, Ohio State.
“Chris produced a resource several years ago – something about teaching defensive backs how to tackle, and I really liked what he did. I exchanged a couple of emails with him, and he was great.”
Central Missouri coach, Chuck Clemons is another of Annett’s inspirations.
“He put together a three-part video series that was awesome. I exchanged multiple emails with him, and bounced a lot of ideas off of him – a lot of inspiration came from him.”
Annett also pulled, and shared some resources with division III coach, Rick Ponx, who was doing a coaching circuit in the U.S. on tackling. The interaction came full-circle as Ponx added some of Annett’s ideas into his presentations – giving a shout-out to the Sault Sabercats’ coach.
A final inspiration of Annett’s was his former DC at Laurier, Ron VanMoerkerke.
“He was great; a really great teacher, and I learned a lot from him. We were taught a lot of good things when I played, and I kind of just pulled a few ideas of what he was teaching us, and there was some really good stuff there.”
While Tom supplied a large portion of the Safe Contact tackling technique, Ottawa coach Rob Hamm had a large hand in putting together the blocking basics.
“We don’t go anywhere as in-depth on the blocking side as we do on the tackling side but that blocking section could be even larger than our tackling section because there are just so many different kinds of blocks. I think Rob did a good job of getting the basics down for blocking, and it’s an area I think we’d like to expand in the future.”
Initially, the Sault Ste. Marie coach developed his safer tackling techniques to help the players he coached avoid injuries like the one that ended his playing career. Never in his wildest dreams, did he believe it would progress to where it is today.
“I never envisioned it getting to this scale, to be honest. I’m humbled that it is. Once it started rolling out, it almost snowballed, and a lot of good people came on board.”
“Once it started going, I thought to myself, this is something special, and this could be huge, and it is now. When I first started doing it, and first started coaching, I never thought I’d be part of developing a program that’s now national, and is the main certification through the NCCP.”
There are many reasons Annett credits for Safe Contact being embraced across Canada.
For one, early on in the process of helping develop content for Safe Contact, Tom stressed the importance of explaining the content through video. Shot on the outskirts of Toronto, Tom would go on to lead all the Safe Contact drills on video, now used to train coaches. The videos are also available on the Safe Contact website as a resource for coaches to go back to.
“Trying to explain a drill on paper is challenging – you could fill up pages, and pages. Not only do I think the videos are a better teaching resource but it’s way more efficient. In this day, and age, the way people learn is more interactive. They did a great job with the editing too – it looks great, and I’m really happy with the results.”
Annett credits the advanced section on situational tackling as a big part of why even high level coaches have bought into the Safe Contact program.
“I think what gets us a lot of buy-in is the fact that we added that situational tackling part. That situational tackling section is one of the key differences between Safe Contact, and the current USA Football Heads-Up program because we talk about things like tracking the ball carrier.”
Another critical feature of Safe Contact which builds on Tom’s presentation from the 2013 national coaches convention is breaking down tackling sequence, and identifying reasons why tackles were unsuccessful.
“Safe Contact provides answers to coaches, and definitely increases buy-in. The video really solidifies it.”
Football Canada’s partnership with the Canadian Football League further helped bring Safe Contact to the next level. They assisted with the shooting, and coordinator of the drill videos. Soon after, a first and now second public service announcement was produced, and televised during CFL on TSN broadcasts. The TV spot helps spread the word about the program across the country.
“It’s instant credibility as soon as you get the highest level in the country supporting it. You get into problems when you run a program, and have higher level coaches questioning it. But when you get coaches at the highest level, the pro-elite level buying in – that’s instant credibility.”
“You’ll get much greater buy-in from lower-level coaches as a result. That, and the exposure from the CFL too, just spreading the word – I talk about all the awesome things Football Canada did but when they brought on the CFL, which was awesome, that brought it to a whole other level.”
With the CFL also on board, football in Canada rallied around Safe Contact.
“I think it’s great, when you can get everyone on the same page, and it’s only going to make the game better when we’re all making safety number one on the agenda. I think everyone’s seeing that now, and buying in. Also they’re learning that a lot of this stuff is making their athletes better football players too.”
Making the game safer was Annett’s initial catalyst to develop his tackling progression, however, he firmly believes Safe Contact teaches sound fundamentals that make teams better.
“If you’re coaching, I think you should have player safety paramount. Not only does Safe Contact put safety at the forefront but it’s going to make your team a better tackling team; you’re going to be more efficient, and effective, you’ll win more games, you can create more turnovers, and on and on.”
Because of his passion, and expertise, Football Québec invited Tom to facilitate Safe Contact training with some high level coaches at the Cégep, and university levels – an experience he thoroughly enjoyed.
“They were a great group to work with, and most of them were already doing a lot of the stuff, coaching at that level which was awesome”
“That’s the kind of stuff that I get excited about, and I knew that was an advanced group so I placed a greater emphasis on situational tackling. That’s what they wanted too, and I could tell they were most intrigued, and interested in that aspect. I really enjoyed teaching those higher level concepts with people that really get it.”
Annett, a high school teacher himself, was also asked to facilitate to all of the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board’s coaches – the first Canadian school board to do so.
“I had an awesome time, and my hat goes off to the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board for being really the first school board to do that. It was a huge initiative; they spent quite a bit of money because they pulled their teachers out of class, and hired supply teachers. I thought it was awesome, and the feedback we got back was great.”
He gave back to local colleagues as well, training coaches in the Sault Ste. Marie high school system.
Tom Annett hopes Safe Contact continues to grow across Canada not only in its teaching to players but also the development of additional content.
“I’d like to see more, and more coaches continue to get trained but I’d also like to see what we’ve put together continue to evolve and grow – have more good quality coaches contribute to it. Maybe go into a CIS or CFL program, and show some drills that they teach on a type of situational tackle. The more people contribute, the more it grows, the more buy-in we get, and the more sustainable the program becomes.”
“Ultimately it’s for the kids – the kids are benefiting from this, the game is growing strong, and that’s what we want to see.”
Over the next two years, by 2017 all Football Canada member coaches will be mandated to receive Safe Contact training, helping contributors like Tom Annett pass on a legacy that will have a lasting impact on football in Canada for years to come.
This post is also available in: French