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Winning is important to long-time football coach Greg Marshall, but not at the expense of player safety.

Marshall has won plenty in the game. He captured the 1980 Hec Crighton Trophy as a running back at the University of Western Ontario and has won three Vanier Cups, 18 Yates Cup championships and two Canadian university coach-of-the-year honours on the sidelines with the Mustangs and McMaster University.

In 2004, Marshall claimed the Annis Stukus Trophy as the CFL’s coach of the year while with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

But with concussions in football having been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease – Marshall and Western are doing their part to make football as safe as possible.

“I get it, I had my three sons go through it,” Marshall said. “I think as you get older, you get a little wiser and realize there are so many good things about this game that make it special for young men because it’s an opportunity for them to be part of something.

“But it’s got to be safe.”

So like many football programs, the Mustangs have changed how they practise. There’s some live contact during training camp, but that ends once the regular season begins. The players practise in pads just twice during the week (usually Tuesday, Wednesday) and revert to just helmets on Thursday and Friday before a Saturday game.

Last year, Western purchased new, state-of-the-art helmets from Vicis, a Seattle-based company that states its products reduce the severity of head impacts. The helmet’s outer shell acts like a car bumper, flexing upon impact then immediately bouncing back.

Last May, the company was awarded a contract from the U.S. Army to improve its combat helmets. It says it’s also working on a youth football helmet.

The Mustangs have fitted each helmet with a GForceTracker. It’s an athlete-monitoring system used to record, measure and analyse head impacts and biometric performance data in real time.

“We’re fortunate, we have a couple of PhD students who monitor it and the data is collected off the helmet after every practice and game,” Marshall said. “We know how we’re practising, we know what we’re teaching.”

The Mustangs have also adopted the TopSpin360, a neck strengthening program created by Theodore Versteegh, a former Western player. The TopSpin360 attaches to a helmet and has a small weight at the end of an arm that spins as an athlete rotates his head.

The product works as a strengthener to help the neck cushion concussion-causing blows. Last month, the TopSpin360 won the NFL’s First and Future safety innovation award, receiving a US$50,000 grand prize and two tickets to the New England Patriots-Los Angeles Rams Super Bowl game in Atlanta.

“We’re kind of the guinea pigs on the research and utilization of that device,” Marshall said. “The whole thing is if you strengthen the neck, the theory is you’re going to translate that force through your head down through your body.

“It’s trying to eliminate that whiplash effect that can cause a concussion.”

While the subject of concussions has caused much angst in the football community, Marshall said there have been many positives from the research.

“The best thing that’s come out is concussion protocol,” Marshall said. “If our players have any symptoms, then they’re immediately put into protocol instead of just going back on the field.

“And they’re more aware of it, their parents are more aware of it and their friends are more aware of it. They’re saying, ‘Hey, you know what? You’ve still got headaches, you should go see the doctor and report this,’ whereas 20, 30 years ago we never thought anything of it.”

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