Brigid Ling remembers being the only girl at Minnesota Vikings camps growing up. Yet Ling and her husband, Jeremy, a fellow football lover, faced a difficult moment with their two oldest children as they reached their preteen years and told their parents that flag football was too "baby" for them and they wanted to move up to tackle football.
The St. Paul couple was well aware of concussion studies and wondered whether the sport they loved was safe enough for their children. Several friends were wondering the same thing.
Instead of saying no, they decided to figure out an intermediate step between flag and tackle football for third- through eighth-graders.
Jeremy Ling, a biomedical engineer by trade, started working on a device that would allow the kids to learn fundamentals that would prepare them for high school football. Birthday parties and play dates turned into prototype sessions.
The result is the company TackleBar, a finalist in the National Football League's 1st and Future event, a "Shark Tank" style business competition focused on innovative ways to improve safety in the sport.
With TackleBar, players wear helmets and pads. They also wear a harness around their midsection that has two foam bars on the back. The players still make contact like tackle football, but then the defensive player reaches around his or her opponent and grabs one of the foam bars off the harness.
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In 2016, the Lings launched two prototype leagues in the Twin Cities. Tim Healy of Long Lake was coaching youths, including one of his seven children, in one of the leagues and saw TackleBar as a natural progression in the game. The Lings recruited him to become CEO of their fledgling venture and launched the company in 2017.
Healy, a former Medtronic distributor who was looking for a new business opportunity, had a free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints after playing for St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.
"Football is such a great game," he said. "The discipline and hard work, two-a-days, all the weight training, the lessons you learn when you win and lose. I'm speaking for myself. I took a lot of that from the game, so I feel blessed to give."
That first year, besides adding some Twin Cities leagues, the company also signed a partnership with the Vikings. The team incorporated the device into its youth camps. Then Healy and staff attended conventions to convince coaches that the harness could be the answer to stanching the decline in youth football participation.