Meet John Collins, one of the newest coaches of the controversial TV series Friday Night Tykes, a show that follows six San Antonio-area youth football teams that are part of the Texas Youth Football Association. Collins, 45, is the head coach and CEO of the San Antonio Predators, a team and organization he took over last January. The Predators’ roster is made up of kids between the ages of 9-11.
Collins, a former military man who moved to San Antonio with his family in 2013 to take a job with a local fracking company, spoke to the Current last week about his coaching philosophy and his thoughts on CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), which, according to researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, has been linked to the deaths of at least 87 former NFL players.
Season 3 of Friday Night Tykes premieres Jan. 19 at 8pm on the Esquire Network.
How do you like being a football coach on a reality show?
I am not a fan of reality shows, but I can tell you I never felt [producers] were trying to make Friday Night Tykes a reality show. Reality shows are scripted. Friday Night Tykes is a documentary. What you see is what you get with me. I’m not going to be some sugarcoated puppet for somebody. I can tell you from my experience that I never felt like they tried to turn me into a reality show star.
You describe the type of football you want your players to play as “Smashmouth football.” Can you explain what that is?
Smashmouth is confrontational and aggressive football. Football is a contact sport. You’re not getting that yard if you’re not fighting for that yard. There’s no team that’s going to say, “Hey, let me just escort you into the end zone.” Smashmouth means you’re not letting anyone walk all over you. You have to do everything you can do within the rules. I’m not talking about playing dirty. I’m talking about good, clean hitting and using proper techniques. You have to step onto that field and feel like a winner. I love working with kids. When you’re teaching them about playing football, you want them to fight for everything.
You want them to fight for everything not only during games, but at practice, too, right?
If you play basketball, the only way you get good at shooting free throws is to practice shooting free throws. When you’re in the Army and you’re working on your marksmanship, the only way you get better is by shooting. In football, when you’re blocking on the line or you’re tackling, the only way you get better is by blocking and tackling. You have to teach them how to block right. There are ways to block and tackle correctly that will keep you from getting injured or getting hit in the head. Our kids are hitting every day. That’s the only way they’re going to get better at it.
Over the last few years, the game of football has changed with the evidence of what concussions and head injuries can do to players over time. How has youth football changed and is it for the better?
I like some of the changes and I understand the perspective of protecting people. But, again, football is a contact sport. They can’t continue to say they’re trying to preserve the game. They’re worried about public opinion. When they talk about concussions, they talk about that disease [CTE] that players acquire because they play football. You can’t figure out if you have the disease until after you’re dead and get an autopsy done. My question is, did they get that head injury from playing football or were they in a car wreck? When they were a kid, did they bump heads with another kid playing in the backyard?
So you honestly have doubts that CTE in professional players was not caused by the hits they sustained during their football careers?
Look, I’m not saying [CTE] is not caused by football, but is that the only thing that causes it? They always want to point [the disease] to football. We get a lot of people in this world that get hurt every day walking down the street, driving a car, riding a motorcycle. Can someone show me that concussions are the only thing that cause [CTE]? I doubt it. Football can’t be the only reason.
Did football kill Junior Seau or any of the NFL players who were confirmed to have CTE after their deaths?
I can’t say that football killed him. I can’t. I’m by no means saying football doesn’t cause [CTE]. I’ve noticed in society that everybody comes up and shows documentation or proof of how [football] caused this, but there are a million other reasons. Maybe they did die from [CTE] or maybe they died from a heart attack or Alzheimer’s [disease]. Everybody is on social media now and reports what they want to report.
What do you say when doctors and researchers come out and say kids shouldn’t play football because of the high risk of head injury?
I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong. Their study might be right. Here’s the deal: you have you’re life and you’re going to live it. People get killed in car wrecks every day, does that mean you shouldn’t ride in a car? We explain to the parents that their child can get hurt. We explain the type of equipment we have to protect their child. I make it a point to talk to every family and ask them if they have questions. I don’t want [their kid] to play if they feel uncomfortable with their kid playing. To me as a parent, you’re responsible for your child. At the end of the day, that parent is going to make the most educated decision they can for their child.
As a coach, do you think kids playing youth football should play hurt? Would you want your son to play hurt?
It depends on what the injury is. Sometimes kids get stingers. The question I ask kids on [Friday Night Tykes] is, “Are you hurt or are you injured?” Everybody plays with injuries. I don’t care what level you’re talking about. If a kid wants to play or if an adult wants to play, they can make that decision. I explain to the kids that they have to tell me what is going on with them. If they have a bruise I ask them if they can play with that bruise. It hurts, but is it going to stop them from playing? I try to teach the kids that if the world gets a little tough, you don’t just quit.
But isn’t there a point where a kid is going to go back into a game injured just because he doesn’t want to let his coach or parents down?
There is a point, but I can tell when they’re doing that. I watch them walk and talk. I was an Ops NCO (Operations Non-Commissioned Officer) who took 400-something soldiers to combat and they all came back alive. I have a lot of experience watching individuals and making sure they’re OK. It’s the same thing with kids. When you talk with them, you look them in the eye. I can see what their eyes are telling me. Are they dilated or glazed over? You get trained on how to identify concussions.
Do you think new regulations at any level of football are softening the game? In Will Smith’s new movie Concussion, the term “vaginize” is used to describe what some fans think science is doing to football.
If everybody would follow the rules and play by the guidelines, there wouldn’t be a need for all these new stipulations. Some aspects of the game are a little softer. Before you couldn’t tackle high. Then you couldn’t tackle low. At some point you have to ask if you’re playing two-hand touch or tackle football. The beauty of the game is still there, but if players continue to do the cheap shots and more rules are made, you might as well be playing badminton.
Last year, one coach featured on Friday Night Tykes, Charles Chavarria, was suspended for encouraging his players to hurt their opponents. How did you feel about that ruling?
I think the organization was right. Every coach wants their players to play Smashmouth football, they just might not call it Smashmouth. They want their kids to hit other kids hard. I tell my kids, “I want you to smash them – hit them hard!” But you won’t catch me telling a kid to do some sneaky tactic to legitimately or intentionally hurt a kid. Chavarria made a point to tell his kids to hit the other kids [on the side of the helmet]. That’s the most ludicrous stuff in the world. That’s a sheep in my book. My organization is about teaching kids the basic fundamentals of how to play good hard football. I’m not going to tell my kids to go and hit another player on the knee or helmet.
Do you feel like all your players are on the field because they want to play football or do you think some of them are pressured to play by their parents? How do you handle a situation when one of your players really doesn’t want to play anymore?
Since I’ve been [in San Antonio], I’ve seen some kids that don’t want to play. I can tell you, I don’t play them. Mom and dad can yell and scream all they want, but our organization has a “no play requirement.” You can get on a team, but that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed any playing time at all. There’s no one in the world that can make me play a kid. I tell parents, “If your kid is not doing what he needs to do, I’m not putting him on the field and in harm’s way.” If you go out on the field and play lackadaisical, I’m not going to put you in a situation where you can get hurt.
Do some parents make their kids play because they want to live vicariously through them?
Oh yes. I’ve seen that a lot. Some of these parents must’ve sucked in high school when they played football or basketball. Some mom and dads will put everything into their kids playing. They ruin them that way. A kid in that situation will grow up to hate sports.
Your own kid plays for the Predators. What kind of values are you trying to teach him as a coach and father?
The values I want my son to know are that when you make a commitment to do something, you need to do it to the best of your ability. Once you start it, you have to finish it for that season. That’s just the name of the game. You don’t quit something that you start. I’m not raising a quitter.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about youth football?
Just because a kid plays youth football doesn’t guarantee them a scholarship to college or to play in the NFL. Football is great for kids because it teaches them life lessons they wouldn’t get otherwise. Some kids don’t have a dad at home. The only male figure in some of these kids’ lives is the coach on the football field. We’re teaching these kids values like how to help others, how to look out for their buddy, teamwork, integrity, and commitment.
How does your experience in the military help you as a youth football coach?
When people become a leader in the military, you provide purpose, direction, and motivation. One of the best organizations in the world at motivating and training individuals is the U.S. military. These are kids, but if you start showing them structure and giving them a routine, it becomes a good habit that carries over into other aspects of their lives. I have no problem making decisions and sticking to my guns. That’s something the military taught me. I have my rules and that’s what we’re going to follow.