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Football is the one sport in which the defense highlights might be more exciting than the offense. During football season, ESPN’s SportsCenter is filled with crushing tackles that seem to please viewers more than the touchdowns. While the violence of some of these collisions makes a UFC match look like a pillow fight, tackling is actually a pretty safe business. 

“You don’t see many injuries from tackles,” says Greg Colby, author of Football: Steps to Success and the defensive line coach at the University of Illinois. “In fact, I can’t remember the last injury that came from a tackle.”

The tackle has changed over the years, Colby says. With the increased use of a spread offense, you now see more individual tackles in the open field, when a defensive player has to get the job done by himself. The stakes are high in this situation because a missed tackle means the runner will gain a lot of yards. Looking for ways to increase effectiveness as well as spinal safety for offense and defense, football institutions have started cracking down on the practice of helmet-first tackling. 

While your annual Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl with your high school buddies might have very little in common with anything seen on Monday Night Football, the mechanics of a tackle should be exactly the same as in the NFL or college football. 

“You want guys bending their knees, keeping their heads up, keeping their chests up and staying in a good position,” Colby says. “You do the same thing in recreational games. If you start diving with your head down, you are putting yourself at risk.”

Heads Up:The crux of a safe tackle is keeping your head — and thus your neck and spine — out of harm’s way. Holding your chin up also helps you arch your back and expose your torso, which is what you want to use to deliver the tackle. The main contact point of the tackle should be the upper chest, where the top of the numbers would be if you were wearing a jersey. “You can’t hit a guy if you have your eyes down and you can’t see him, so that’s another reason to keep the head up,” Colby says.

Test Your Chest:The proper stance for tackling is all about exposing the chosen contact surface (the upper chest) to the ball carrier. As you approach the runner, you should be in a low stance, with your hips back, knees bent, shoulders retracted, and your torso and hips making about a 45-degree angle. Both feet should be facing forward. From that position, you drive into the runner by explosively opening the hips, keeping your head up the whole time. 

Unwrapped Gift:Do not wrap up a runner with your arms. This motion takes the arch out of the back and brings the head down. Instead, keep your hands in front of you with your elbows bent about 90 degrees. As you initiate the tackle and your hips violently open, forcefully drive both hands up in a powerful double-uppercut motion. Besides adding power to the tackle, this also helps bring the head up and away from harm.

If you start tossing the pigskin this Thanksgiving, don’t feel like you have to be Lawrence Taylor and everyone else is Joe Theismann. In fact, consider skipping the tackles completely. During practice, Colby’s squad at the University of Illinois does something they call “Thud.” “They make contact with the ball carrier but without taking him down to the ground,” Colby says. “It’s a way to work the physicality of tackling without increasing the risk of injury.” That way, you and your buddies will be guaranteed to make it safely to the table for the real star of the day. <