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May 14, 2013
By Steve Wieberg, contributing writer
Every new incident, every new study, brings new concern about football and concussions and whether a rough and sometimes punishing sport is safe. Lawsuits have been filed. Youth participation has slipped. Even the nation’s president is wondering: Should parents think twice about letting their sons don a helmet and pads and head onto a field to play?
Nick Inzerello takes the question and issue to heart. An undersized but heady and sure-handed receiver, he played four years at Northwest Missouri State University and helped lay the foundation for what’s now one of the NCAA’s signature Division II programs. He loved the game then. He still does.
As senior director of football development for USA Football, the national governing body of youth and amateur football, Inzerello is front and center in the development of appropriate player and team training programs, in the education and certification of coaches – in reinforcing and engraining safety at the sport’s grass-roots level. He and the Indianapolis-based organization work in partnership with the National Football League, its 32 teams and its players’ union.
“It’s an important time for our game at every level,” Inzerello says. “You have parents asking, ‘Why should I let my youngster play? Are the coaches certified? Are they background-checked? What type of practice plans do they use?’
“It’s our responsibility to make sure we’re setting standards in football to insure a better, safer experience … so they feel more comfortable, knowing that here’s an (overseeing) organization and, when I drop off my son to play, the coach has been trained and they have rules in place.”
Among those tracking his work: his old coach at Northwest, Mel Tjeerdsma.
“I’m just really proud,” says Tjeerdsma, who moved into his new role as the university’s athletics director April 8. “Nick’s at the coaches’ (annual) convention, at our board meeting, and you see him making a presentation and it makes you feel good to say, ‘Hey, that’s one of ours. Look where he’s at now.’
“He’s at a national level and sometimes a world level at what he’s doing. And he’s helping to make the game of football better.”
Inzerello, who graduated from Northwest with a degree in public relations in 1998, has long been special to the Hall of Fame coach. He was a part of Tjeerdsma’s first Bearcats recruiting class in 1994, a group that went from an 0-11 finish that fall to back-to-back Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association championships and D-II playoff berths when Inzerello was a junior and senior.
Signed out of Millard South High School in Omaha, Neb., the 5-10, 180-pound Inzerello made an immediate impact on special teams and developed into a valuable possession receiver and fulltime starter by his final season. He was among a half-dozen or so members of that cornerstone recruiting class not to redshirt, something that tugged at Tjeerdsma when the Bearcats went 15-0 and celebrated the first of three D-II national championships in 1998 – a year after they’d moved on.
“I always feel kind of bad for them,” Tjeerdsma says, “because they were really an integral part of what we did and how we got this thing turned around.”
Inzerello’s place in the program’s history is secure, however. He and the rest of the ’97 team, the first to win at Pittsburg State in more than two decades and unbeaten until reaching the D-II quarterfinals, were inducted last year into the school’s M-Club Hall of Fame.
It wasn’t just football that occupied Inzerello in Maryville. He was a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and Northwest’s chapter of the Blue Key Honor Society, which recognizes students for all-around excellence in scholarship, leadership and service. As a senior, he served as Student Senate treasurer.
He started focusing on a career in athletics administration as a junior and landed an internship with the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo., a year later. The USOC hired him back after graduation, he moved on to a graduate assistantship in media and public affairs with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, and he went back to the Olympic Committee for five years as coordinator of athlete marketing and digital media. The latter job took Inzerello to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
He joined USA Football in 2003, when he was one of just five staff members. Now, there are about 60.
The non-profit governing body, the official youth football development partner of the NFL, holds more than 80 training events annually, offers education for coaches and game officials and skill development for players and provides resources for leagues and administrators. Its membership spans all 50 states and 49 countries abroad.
Among other things, Inzerello helps oversee the Heads Up Football initiative that stages clinics and sets up local “safety coaches.” A pilot program that operated in three leagues in Virginia, California and Indiana a year ago is expanding this year to hundreds of leagues across the country.
His department also runs NFL Flag, the league’s flag football program for 5- to 17-year-olds, and the national Punt, Pass & Kick skills competition.
“What I’m doing now,” Inzerello says, “is giving back to a game that’s given me so much.”
Northwest – and Tjeerdsma, who retired as coach after the 2010 season – remain near and dear to both him and his work.
“To see the transition over the four years that I was there, to be a small part of that, taught me so many things,” Inzerello says. “I look back on it, and what was unique – and is still is a trait of the Bearcat program in all sports – is that we had such a great family atmosphere.
“The Bearcat family is such a special thing, and I think that transcends to the field. We had a group that really stuck together, especially our freshman class. Going through that 0-11 season brought us closer together. It strengthened our connection to the coaches. … We knew that they would turn it around.”
As for Tjeerdsma: “How I approach working with others, I learned from him,” says Inzerello, now 37 and the married father of three. “He cares about the people around him. You can sense that. I think I picked up a lot of the way he communicates with people, the way he looks you in the eye. You know he really cares for you and your well-being and he cares for your family.
“He’s a mentor for me in the things I’m doing.”
They stay in touch, talking every 3-4 weeks by phone. Inzerello also remains close with his old Northwest teammates – Matt Becker, Brian Sutton, Steve Coppinger, Chris Greisen and the rest – and tries to get back to Maryville every year.
He and Tjeerdsma enjoyed an extended reunion in 2011, when Tjeerdsma coached a U.S. team of collegians that swept four games and won the American Football World Cup tournament in Austria. USA Football was its sponsor. Inzerello was the one who first suggested Tjeerdsma as coach, and he then oversaw travel and other logistics on the team’s trip to Innsbruck and Vienna.
He could see it coming 16 years ago.
“Nick had a real appreciation for academics and for why he was at Northwest,” Tjeerdsma says. “Obviously, he wanted to play football. But he was there to advance himself, get a degree and try to make an impact on other people after he left. And he’s been able to do that.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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