Dartmouth College football coach Buddy Teevens has an unusual message for rookies on their first day of practice: Tackling other players is not allowed. Then it gets even weirder. He tells them they’re going to learn how to tackle a robot—the six-foot-tall, 190-pound Mobile Virtual Player (MVP).
Teevens banned player-on-player tackling during practice back in 2010, substituting dummies and crash pads at a time when the link between America’s favorite sport and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, was becoming clearer and more damning. (CTE has since been found, posthumously, in the brains of more than 100 former NFL players.) “Career-wise, it may not have been the savviest thing to do, but I believed it was in the best interest of our players,” he recalls. Other coaches warned that he should expect to get fired for his decision, especially coming off a 0-10 season in 2008. But Teevens knew that most hits—as many as 58 percent of concussions in college football, studies have found—happen in practice. “I also thought, if your frontline players are able to play, you’ll probably be a more successful team,” he says. That season, missed tackles dropped by 50 percent, and Dartmouth earned its first winning record since 1997.
The idea of putting a robot on the field came to Teevens, a trim, blue-eyed, 62-year-old former Dartmouth quarterback, after he observed his young son using a remote-control car to chase their cat. “Could we ever do that with a tackling dummy?” he wondered. In the spring of 2011, he called up John Currier, a fellow Dartmouth alum and research engineer at the college, to start building a prototype. By the 2015 preseason camp, two of the first MVPs were on the field.
Operated by remote control, the MVP slides across turf or grass on wheels, easily running a 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds—as fast as the fastest tight ends at the NFL Combine. It zigs, zags, and swivels with the finesse of an Olympic figure skater. Yet when players tackle the vinyl-covered robot with full force, they find it firm yet forgiving, like a leather couch. On impact, the device, dressed in a Dartmouth football jersey, topples over like a domino.
But can a motorized robot really prepare players for human contact during a game? The 70-plus high schools, more than 40 colleges, and 15 NFL teams now using the MVP think so. Teevens says Mobile Virtual Player LLC now a six-person start-up of which he is chairman) is already developing an autonomous robot that will learn plays. According to Dartmouth linebacker Jack Traynor, tackling the M.V.P. is actually much harder than sacking another player, given the robot’s start-stop unpredictability. “Usually, you get cues when you’re tackling a person,” he says.
In 2016, after the robot’s debut season, when the Big Green went 9-1 and tied for the Ivy League Championship, the league voted unanimously to ban in-season, player-on-player tackling during practices. “It was a big step for all of us,” Teevens says. Meanwhile, the NFL has also limited full-contact practices.
At Dartmouth, the MVP has improved both player safety, halving the number of injuries per season, and the team’s record. In 2018, when Teevens’s squad went 9-1 once more, all but one of the team’s 22 starters played in every game. The robots are here, and they’ve become an indispensible part of the team. “We have some guys who call the MVP Buddy,” Teevens says. “But I’m sure that’s a backhanded jibe at me.”