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Home » In helmet vs. skull, helmet always wins — but that doesn’t stop college football coaches

In helmet vs. skull, helmet always wins — but that doesn’t stop college football coaches

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SHANE BEAMER IS not a meathead. He wants to make this point clear because, frankly, the visual evidence from Oklahoma‘s 2019 opener against Houston would suggest otherwise.

What Beamer looked like that day, with blood clotting around a strand of tape that temporarily closed a half-inch gash just above his left eye, was more boxer than football coach. The look, he said, evoked Lattimer, the face-painted, window-smashing linebacker from the 1993 football movie “The Program.” Standing on the sideline in the third quarter, QB Jalen Hurts glared at Beamer for a moment before asking, “What the hell happened to you?”

What happened was this: Fullback Jeremiah Hall scored Oklahoma’s first touchdown of the season, and the first of his career. Beamer loves Hall, and he wanted to celebrate. Both were a tad too excited, and the celebration went haywire. Beamer’s bare forehead collided with Hall’s helmet in a show of affection that ended with blood pouring down Beamer’s face.

Beamer wiped what he believed was sweat from his forehead, only to find a geyser of blood. He scrambled for the team’s trainer.

“I don’t know what this looks like,” he told the trainer, “but I need you to help me.”

Beamer could at least take solace in the knowledge he was hardly the first coach to lose a battle with a football helmet. John T. Riddel developed the first plastic helmet in 1948, and it’s likely the first poorly executed head-butt soon followed. Over the years, a host of players, strength trainers and coaches have all made the mistake of connecting bare heads with a helmet-wearing player in hopes of ginning up pregame excitement or celebrating a big play or, occasionally, simply because there’s something primal about two men smashing their heads together. It happens on a near-annual basis, and the clash between hard helmet and soft skin almost always results in a few stitches and a lot of good jokes.

There’s LSU assistant strength coach Jake Reidel, who delivered a pregame head-knock to wide receiver Racey McMath in 2018, opening up a nasty gash across his own forehead in the process.

There’s former Texas coach Tom Herman, who delivered the rare triple head-butt to get his team fired up before its 2019 showdown with Baylor. The move caused no real damage to Herman’s skull, but the Longhorns lost 24-10.

There’s former Ohio State assistant (and current Tennessee Titans coach) Mike Vrabel, who thought he’d escaped public ridicule after slicing his face during a head-butt celebration back in 2012, only to have his wife tweet out a photo of the gory aftermath a few days later with the warning, “best not to head-butt a guy with a helmet when you aren’t wearing one!! #Einstein.”

For Beamer, now the head coach at South Carolina, the jokes started before the game was even over. Oklahoma was up big, and the broadcast team needed to fill some airtime as the final minutes ticked off the clock. Enter ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe, with a full medical description of Beamer’s injury, complete with a photo of the stitched-up assistant coach. Social media took it from there, as memes playing up Beamer’s new Frankenstein appearance circulated, and friends and family soon shared those with Beamer’s wife, Emily, who was in the stands.

“She came down on the field after the game all worried, like, ‘What did you do?'” Shane Beamer said.

Beamer said he was concerned the viral moment would mark him as a hothead, grabbing players and delivering head-butts without a second thought to his own health and safety, but most of the texts were supportive — or at least worth a chuckle. After all, he said, knocking heads with a guy in a helmet might seem inexplicable to an outside observer, but for coaches genuinely lost in the moment on game day, it all makes perfect sense at the time.

“I didn’t want to be that guy,” Beamer said. “But people that know me know how much I love coaching and love my kids and that was just an example. Just not the smartest one.”

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO know who authored the first inept head-butt in coaching history, but it’s safe to say it was former Georgia defensive coordinator Erk Russell, who set the standard by which all modern mishaps should be judged.

Throughout the 1970s, Russell had a pregame tradition with his defensive linemen in which players huddled around the coach in what he called “the bull ring.” Russell would point to a lineman — the bull — who would then charge the coach. Russell would mash his bald scalp into the player’s chest and shoulder pads, lifting the player into the air with his arms. From outside the huddle, it looked violent, but Russell had his technique down and no harm was done — until the Dawgs’ 1979 game against South Carolina.

That day, Georgia was down a few linemen due to injuries, so Russell had one of his linebackers, Robert Goodwin, move to D-end. Goodwin had seen the pregame ritual before, but like most people who had witnessed the spectacle, he thought Russell delivered a genuine head-butt. So, when they all lined up in the bull ring, Russell called out Goodwin’s name, and the bull charged.

“Robert comes flying in, thinking he’s head-butting,” said Frank Ros, one of Georgia’s star defenders at the time. “He comes in and lowers his head and wham!”

Worse yet, Goodwin’s facemask had been hastily attached to his helmet moments earlier, leaving the tip of a screw jutting out from the front. The screw dug into the top of Russell’s head and opened a gruesome, two-inch gash.

“Blood just started pouring down,” Ros said.

Russell wasn’t fazed. He wiped the blood from his head and began swiping it across his players’ jerseys before a team trainer finally intervened, sticking a butterfly bandage across the laceration.

The resulting photo of Russell, streaks of blood running down his forehead, a swab of blood staining his white polo shirt and a bandage affixed to his bald scalp, now stands as an iconic reminder of the coach’s ferocity, even if those who played for Russell knew he was hardly the madman the image evokes.

“People think he was a mean, tough, rough guy,” Ros said. “But he was the nicest guy. He’d never degrade you and always ended with, ‘I know you can do it.’ Man, you’d run through a wall for that guy.”

The next day, players showed up for a Sunday film review and weightlifting, and a few began razzing Russell about the injury.

“I guess you won’t be head-butting this week,” one player joked.

No, Russell said. His head-butting days were officially over.

“I got home last night,” Ros remembered Russell explaining, “and my wife said if I ever came home looking like that again, she was going to divorce me.”

THERE IS NO OFFICIAL club for coaches who have survived a head-butting mishap, no sharing of war stories or comparing battle scars. Army coach Mike Viti, who was nearly knocked out after a helmet-to-head collision during the Black Knights’ game against Cincinnati last year, suggested there should at least be a ceremonial helmet (or dunce cap, perhaps) they all have to wear during the next game.

In the end, Viti was fine and remained on the sideline, though a bit upset with himself. Viti blamed the mishap on his own lack of athleticism. If he’d gotten a bit more vertical, he believes, he might have avoided the worst of the blow.

“I was mad I was down on my game and not matching [Mike Johnson]’s intensity,” he said.

Beamer figures the occasional sideline mishap is inevitable, and no amount of preparation can overcome the sheer physics of a headfirst encounter with a helmet-wearing player. Beamer said he remembers his dad, longtime Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, once was punched in the face by one of his players, an accident that occurred after a brawl ensued against rival Virginia. The elder Beamer lost a tooth. In comparison, Shane Beamer put up a good fight, noting that his technique was flawless. He had leverage, and he delivered the blow. It’s exactly what he preaches to his running backs. And yet, he was still the one with stitches. Helmet always beats skull.

“People are just expressing their emotions as aggressively as they can. And for whatever reason, that lands on head-butts sometimes.”

Mike Viti, Army assistant coach

Heck, sometimes helmet even beats helmet. Witness Toledo defensive end John Stepec’s performance in the 2015 GoDaddy Bowl. After making a special teams tackle, Stepec celebrated with teammates, bumping heads with the 5-foot-8 kicker then conking helmets with a scrawny receiver. Both celebrations went off without a hitch.

Then Stepec’s helmet tapped 300-pound defensive tackle Treyvon Hester, who was also wearing a helmet, and down went the bigger player. Hester stumbled, tumbled and fell onto the turf as Stepec continued to celebrate. (Though he apologized later on Twitter, noting, “I got a little excited.”)

So, perhaps the lesson is that there’s no such thing as an effective head-butt celebration, and the best advice from the embarrassed experts is this: Try a high-five instead.

“It’s like those messages on the side view mirror,” Hall said. “Helmets may be harder than they appear.”

IN THE AFTERMATH of Hall’s showdown with Beamer’s skull, he was able to bask in the glory of social media celebrity. He picked up a few new followers on Twitter, and he enjoyed seeing his touchdown replayed on SportsCenter again and again (followed by the replay of the Beamer blunder for full effect).

For Johnson, the fallout from his collision with Viti wasn’t quite so much fun.

During a timeout against Cincinnati, Johnson retreated to the sideline and found Viti waiting. The two routinely thumped chests or tapped heads as a show of enthusiasm, so Johnson thought nothing of it when he went in for a chest thump.

“We both came out hot,” Johnson said. “We both went forward. Both went for a chest bump and neither of us moved our heads. Next thing you know, boom!”

Viti stumbled backward, dazed and bleary.

“I was a standing eight count,” Viti said.

Head coach Jeff Monken grabbed his assistant and held him upright, as Johnson turned to look for a trainer. In the process, he spotted the overhead camera, pointed directly at the scene.

“Well,” Johnson said to himself, “I guess they caught that one.”

Indeed, the scene became instant fodder on social media, with more than a few viewers casting Johnson as a maniacal villain — a real-life Lattimer, too hulked out on football endorphins to care about the safety of his own coach.

The truth is, Viti and Johnson are extremely close, “kindred spirits,” as Viti said. Viti saw so much of himself in how Johnson played the game, and Johnson said Viti is a role model for the type of man he hopes to be. The last thing Johnson wanted to do was hurt his coach.

“He was so apologetic,” Viti said. “I was like, ‘I’m more upset that you’re apologizing to me.’ We’ve had a good laugh.”

Johnson was frustrated by the assumption that he was unhinged. It’s not like he walks down the street on an average Tuesday head-butting strangers. But this is college football, and sometimes the emotions take over and all common sense is out the window.

What looks brutal is, in truth, an act of love — albeit a poorly considered one.

“It’s this unique part of sport where you see it a lot and people are just expressing their emotions as aggressively as they can,” Viti said. “And for whatever reason, that lands on head-butts sometimes.”

That’s why it keeps happening in spite of all sense of logic and self-preservation. It’s the sports equivalent of a gender reveal, a familial celebration that ends in chaos far too often, while the rest of the world gawks and laughs the misfortune of those poor souls foolish enough to participate,

The head-butt celebration — with or without a helmet — is engrained in the culture of college football alongside live mascots and big-guy touchdowns.

So Beamer knows he may be called a meathead, even if his head clearly lacked enough meat to properly cushion the blow. But it’s also a testament to how much Beamer and Johnson and Russell love the game and the opportunity to celebrate success with reckless abandon.

It is, Hall said, perhaps the most genuine celebration there is. Dumb, but genuine.

Who wouldn’t want to watch that unfold on social media again and again?

“That’s just the character of Beamer, man,” Hall said. “He loves his guys. He’s that type of coach. He’s very invested in his players and when moments like that happen — I’m not happy I head-butted him, but I’m happy we had a moment I can talk about for the rest of my life.”


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