Coaching a safer, not softer game

Mike Pollak, who played football for Corona del Sol and Arizona State before having a successful seven-year stint in the NFL, returned to Tempe questioning the game he dedicated his life to. He questioned his long-term health and even asked himself if he wanted his kids playing the sport he grew up playing and loved.

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His concerns were heightened by ‘Concussion,’ the Will Smith film that hit theaters in 2015 and caused an epidemic of concern in the world of football regarding player safety.
“There was all these news stories of CTE,” Pollak said. “Former players — we had in depth conversations with ourselves and were going, ‘Are we broken? Like what’s going on?’ And there was this negative stigma of football.”

It took a few years for Pollak to find his calling after leaving the league, but now his love for the game is as strong as ever. Pollak graduated from Corona del Sol in 2003 after becoming a standout two-way player in football as guard and defensive line, but was also an ace pitcher. As a highly-regarded three-star football player who earned All-Region honors, First-Team All-Arizona, First-Team All-City and All-Conference, Pollak went on to play center for Arizona State from 2003-07.

After a successful three years for the Sun Devils where he earned All-Pac-10 second-team in 2006, first-team honors in 2007 and received the Tim Landers Iron Man Award, Cecil Bono Team Captain Award and Pat Tillman Award team awards his senior season, he declared for the 2008 draft where he was selected 59th overall in the second round to the Indianapolis Colts.

He played seven years between the Colts, the Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals before retiring and moving back to Tempe and finding work as volunteer offensive assistant before taking on offensive coordinator under then-head coach Cory Nenaber.
Pollak brought experience, knowledge and a passion to his alma mater (Corona) and was eventually offered a head coach position when Nenaber moved to athletic director.
It seemed like a dream come true for Pollak.

“I kind of looked at this fork of the road and where my life is going,” Pollak said. “I can be a really young head coach for the high school that I went to and be here for a long time. But there was something about safe football, which is the Tip of the Spear, that I just couldn’t turn away from because I felt like there was an opportunity to change the game for the positive.”

During that time, he reconnected with Scott Peters, a former Sun Devil lineman and seven-year NFL veteran himself who founded Tip of the Spear, a program aimed at teaching contact technique to limit blows to the head during the game.

Pollak began shadowing Peters during his clinics around the Valley to promote better technique for linemen. That changed Pollak’s perception of the game. Peters’ epiphany of how to better the game took a more humbling path for him, however, says Pollak.

“So, at the end of (Peters’) NFL career, he was like studying Jujutsu as like a way to stay in shape,” he recalled. “NFL guys do all sorts of crazy stuff in the offseason, and so he gets into this realm of martial arts that was pretty foreign to him at the time.
“He figured, ‘I’m a big strong NFL offensive linemen, I can throw guys around at will,’ and he quickly learned that even guys half a size and twice his age can really do damage to him.

“He got into this realm of martial arts where he was getting his butt kicked by guys that were smaller than him. It didn’t make sense because in the world of football, bigger, faster, stronger mindset is what has always been preached from coaches at all levels.” It was through that experience that Peters began to question how he could translate such power through technique and leverage into the world of football.

The hips generate the most power of any movement, but by having the hips as the driving force to initiate contact for the hands rather than upper body, Pollak says, the head is prevented from being drawn toward contact.

And there’s evidence of the program’s success. Peters accepted a role as an assistant offensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns, and during that span, the Browns offensive line recorded the fewest hits across all 32 clubs. The study was done independently by the NFL using accelerometers.

Pollak himself has seen it first-hand. While coaching at Corona, he began working with Austin Dixon, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound lineman that was on no one’s recruiting radar. With training from Pollak, Dixon was “able to put his life on a completely different course.” Dixon went on to sign with Boise State, but his life was forever changed, and Pollak said that was a “really cool experience.”

Even though Pollak’s mother is an educator and his brother is the head baseball coach for Arizona Preparatory College, he never thought of himself as a teacher. But seeing how he could change lives reignited his passion for the game.

Now in his seventh year, Pollak has taken over as director of training, but the program remains the same. Tip of the Spear travels nationwide to teach technique clinics to coaches and players for all levels of the game, from youth leagues to the NFL and everything in between.

From a one-on-one interview 
with Mike Pollak by Andrew Lwowski



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