Equipment aims to reduce contact, injuries sustained at practice

Imagine you’re the quarterback for the University of Ottawa football team at your first practice of the year. Ball in hand, you’re ready to throw—but time is running out. You see a dark figure zooming towards you at surprising speed. Hurtling towards you is… a large, cylindrical robot.

Every year, new players join the Gee-Gees squad and add something unique to make the team better. The only difference this year is one of the players isn’t human—but it will make a big difference.

The Mobile Virtual Player—yes, its acronym is MVP—joining the Gees for practice will be the first of its kind at a Canadian university.

Far from being a sign of a coming robot uprising, MVP’s mission is to keep players safe, and so far, it’s been a big hit—literally.

The Gee-Gees asked the university for the robot to reduce player-on-player collisions during practice. “Rather than tackling our own guys, we want to tackle the MVP,” said head coach Jamie Barresi. “It’s injury prevention.”

The idea was born when Barresi visited Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to watch a practice and saw their team using an MVP unit. “He saw immediately how it would help us,” said offensive line coach Carl Tolmie.

In 2010, Dartmouth instituted a policy where there would be no player-on-player tackling in practice except on game day, which led to players being healthier and more effective. They introduced MVP devices into their practices in 2015, and now use multiple robots to prepare for games.

Less impact at practice, according to Tolmie, will help avoid unnecessary concussions. “If you’re tackling another body, injuries happen. (MVP) reduces a lot of wear and tear and you can practice real-life game situations.”

Tolmie explained that the robot gets used for all the position groups. It can zoom around the field, cover receivers, take hits, and even rush a quarterback, while being directed by the coaching staff. “Just like a remote control car,” he said.

While some people might be surprised by being told they would be training with a robot, Tolmie said the Gees squad is taking it in stride. “The players have been really receptive to it.”

The practice of using robotic tackle dummies is spreading, and several football teams—including National Football League (NFL) teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and universities like Harvard—are using MVP units. The USA Sevens rugby team has also used the device.

While not widely used in Canada right now, Tolmie says that other universities would be wise to start using the MVP as well.

As the Gees kick off another season, we’ll see if the MVP is successful in reducing injuries and gives them the advantage they’ve been looking for.