Skip to main content

Devin Derouin of the University of Calgary Dinos tackles a robot during their practice at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, on Sept. 7, 2017.TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

Rookie linebacker Devin Derouin, hovering around the 35-yard line in an empty McMahon Stadium, takes a run at an opponent racing down the sidelines and makes a hard tackle – a major no-no during practices in the age of concussions and safety precautions.

His target pops upright immediately. University of Calgary Dinos coaches do not chastise the 18-year-old scholarship student for such an aggressive play. Even in practice a day before a game against the University of Regina Rams, Mr. Derouin is supposed to knock his enemy to the ground. That's because his rival is a remote-controlled tackling dummy that can cover 40 yards in 4.7 seconds. It changes speeds, dekes, stops, pivots, zips backward, comes right at you. It does whatever the coach holding the remote wants it to do, and the 6-foot, 195-pound Mr. Derouin is on board with football's newest piece of technology.

"It allows us to be aggressive and play at full speed – and get better at full speed without risking injury," he says.

Read more: Concussions and recovery time: What the latest research shows

For football coaches and players, the Mobile Virtual Player, dubbed MVP, is one dummy they can learn from. It first saw the light of an engineering lab two years ago at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. It was an idea born of head coach Buddy Teevens's wish that no Dartmouth football player should ever have to tackle a teammate in practice.

That concept was taken to Elliot Kastner, a former Dartmouth defensive lineman, and Quinn Connell, former captain of the school's rugby team. Together, the two engineering students took a standard tackling dummy and gave it two drive wheels, knobby tires and more bounce back than a Bozo the Clown inflatable punching bag. It wasn't long before the prototype was shown on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Since then, more than a dozen National Football League teams have tried it.

"With the advent of a lot of different scientific discoveries – long-term player health and safety – coupled with the social concern and wellness surrounding those issues, there's definitely a large cry for change in the way contact sports are played," Mr. Connell says. "It's great to be an early part in taking what we love about the game and making it safer and more applicable to the world we live in today."

Football in the United States has been under siege from the medical community and the families of former players who have died and had their brains autopsied. In a recent study, 202 former football players from high school to university to the professional ranks had their brains examined by the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston. Of that number, 177 were found with the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), believed to be caused by repetitive blows to the head. Eight former Canadian Football League players were also part of the study; seven had CTE.

Given how many hits are involved in the five days of practice that normally lead up to a football game, any reduction in player-on-player contact lessens the risk of injury and head trauma.

"What's important is how healthy you are coming out of your own practices," Dinos head coach Wayne Harris says. "Any new idea to reduce contact is good for our game, good for our team."

He leaves the black remote in the hands of younger coaches. "They're more into the technology," he says. "All I had when I was a kid was Pong."

The Dinos' MVP, which cost close to $13,000 including currency conversion and shipping fees, was purchased and donated to the program by businessman David Dubé, a former University of Saskatchewan football player whose cousin Trey plays for the Dinos.

Mr. Dubé heard about the dummies about 4 1/2 years ago, and says he was the first person on the manufacturer's waiting list and is its biggest customer. He has "placed" one MVP with Football Saskatchewan, one with the Huskies and one with the Dinos. He intends to place his remaining seven dummies around Western Canada. Professional teams, however, will have to buy their own.

"Football is a great sport, but it is a collision sport," Mr. Dubé says, watching the rookies battle the green dummy. "If we can teach young men and women how to tackle properly, place their head properly, we can play the game much safer. We can practice much safer. We can reduce injuries. And let more people enjoy the game."

At Thursday's showing in Calgary, rookie defensive back Beko Wande says tackling the MVP feels close to the real thing.

"The speed and agility is very similar to actually being in a real game," he explains. "Now, you don't have to fear being aggressive … [and] injuring one of your players. Tackling circuits should be a lot easier and a lot more intense. It is fast and it is fun."

There have been more than 180 orders for the MVP in what is its first year of production. And yes, for those wondering, the MVP can be used by hockey teams, as well.

"With hockey we have a prototype where we studded all the tires and took it out onto the ice. It worked great with the hockey team here," MVP co-creator Connell says. "A lot of the same issues that we see in football and rugby are prevalent across the board. We really do see this as a broad technology."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe