Joel Reichenberger: Safety 1st for Sailors |

Joel Reichenberger: Safety 1st for Sailors

John Gagliardi is the winningest coach in college football history, having guided the St. John's Johnnies and, for a few years early in his career, the Carroll Fighting Saints to a combined 484 wins.

His legacy — still growing after a 6-4 campaign in 2011, his 59th season — doesn't seem to have much connection to Steamboat Springs, where the high school program has struggled recently with fielding a large team and, for the past two seasons, simply winning games.

Steamboat coach Lonn Clementson said Gagliardi's program is an inspiration, however, and as football programs of all sizes and on all levels wade through a world now more aware than ever of the dangers presented by concussions and brain damage possible in football, Clementson said he's found a worthy model.

The football world received yet another shock this week with the tragic news of Junior Seau's suicide. The typical rush to judgment blamed Seau's life between the lines, all the damage and concussions surely accumulated in his two decades ruling the roost as one of the meanest, toughest linebackers in the game.

Whether that truly is to blame will be known in due time thanks to autopsies and tests, but no matter its role in his death, it was another stark reminder to those who love the sport.

Clementson already was well aware, and he's been working hard to ensure his Sailors are as safe as possible when they take the field.

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The most obvious effort is the program's ongoing helmet campaign. Launched early this year, it is designed to raise money to replace the team's helmets. It's advised that helmets be replaced every 10 years, Clementson said, and the current crop is going into its eighth season. Even those aren't unsafe, he said. They're good helmets, just due to be replaced, and the community support for that cause has been overwhelming, he said.

"This is a generous community for all types of different causes, and this is one they identify with in terms of protecting and helping other people in the community," Clementson said.

Although the program still is seeking money for the project, Clementson said he's checking with various suppliers and could place an order in the next two weeks.

Helmets and other safety equipment are only part of a safe sport, and Clementson and the Sailors are striving to take as much of the danger inherent in any contact sport out of the game.

Steamboat's turf field is a blessing, he said. The excellent available medical care in Steamboat Springs is crucial, he said. Proper tackling technique is essential.

And he's looking to Gagliardi and those Johnnies of St. John's.

Gagliardi is famous for the way he's won as much as how often he's won. He does it by going almost entirely without contact in practices. That's something Clementson said his program aspires to.

He said he'd rather teach how to pick apart an offensive system than how to beat up an opponent, and how to be in the right place on time rather than how to plow through blockers to get there late.

For Clementson, it's all part of turning around the program and part of trying to teach the sport he loves to be played as safely as possible.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email

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