Orange County

Tar Heel: Mark Dreibelbis works to make high school sports safer

Mark Dreibelbis, associate commissioner for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, photographed on Friday, April 10, 2015 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Mark Dreibelbis, associate commissioner for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, photographed on Friday, April 10, 2015 in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Mark Dreibelbis loves every aspect of high school sports, from the lightning-fast action to the roar of cheering fans to the most minute details of the rules that govern them.

He’s experienced the games as a student athlete, a coach, one of the officials who patrols the sidelines, and most recently as an administrator who trains coaches and helps create rules for several sports.

So his response to the growing concern of parents about the danger of football and other team sports is simple: Sports are worthwhile, and they can be safe, too.

Dreibelbis (pronounced Dry Bell Biss), an associate commissioner with the N.C. High School Athletic Association, serves on national committees that have adopted a host of new rules in recent years aimed at keeping student athletes safe amid concerns over the long-term effects of sports injuries, particularly in football.

He works with students across the state on leadership skills, and he’s been instrumental in taking ideas about safety and sportsmanship to perhaps the most influential constituency in school sports – the coaches.

Dreibelbis was recently honored nationally as a coach educator, an important role that is being highlighted this month during a national campaign by the scholastic sports organizations to promote the value of national certification for coaches. Starting this fall, all coaches in the schools overseen by his organization will have to be nationally certified.

“North Carolina has made great strides in advocating and promoting coach education, largely due to Mark’s efforts,” says Tim Flannery, director of coach education for the National Federation of State High School Associations.

But Dreibelbis’ influence extends well beyond coaching to making sports safer for student athletes, says Davis Whitfield, commissioner of the N.C. High School Athletic Association.

“He wants to see things change for the better, and no one’s more able than Mark to dive into the details to make changes that work,” says Whitfield, who will soon take a position with the national consortium of these organizations. “The national federation has relied heavily on him over the past 10 years for this.”

Dreibelbis sees training coaches and players about both safety and sportsmanship as the best way to maintain the value of sports while minimizing the inherent dangers.

“The unity and bonds you build through competition and depending on one another and sharing a goal – that’s the core of athletics that will serve you both personally and professionally your whole life,” he says. “Those are the core values that sports teaches.”

In his father’s footsteps

Dreibelbis, 59, grew up in Charlotte, where his father was a teacher, coach, and eventually principal at several junior high and high schools.

At times, the elder Dreibelbis coached football, baseball and basketball. And the younger Dreibelbis spent a lot of his youth on the sidelines, soaking up the rules of the games and the values that drive the players.

“If I wanted to see him, I had to be at the practice or the game,” he says. “Now I take what I learned from him and emulate that for others.”

Dreibelbis played basketball and baseball in high school, and football in earlier grades. He says he was no star, and while he excelled most in baseball, he didn’t play at the college level.

Still, he was drawn to a career in sports, and earned a degree in physical education from Appalachian State University.

He taught physical education and coached basketball and baseball at a K-8 school in Boone before working in athletics at Appalachian State, where he held several roles including associate athletic director.

He also officiated basketball and baseball games for 30 years at both the high school and college levels – a physically and mentally demanding job that he says was thrilling nonetheless. Part of his job now is recruiting and training officials for several sports.

“It was such a release to go out there and run and be a part of it, and hear the bands and the fans and see the joy of students competing,” says Dreibelbis, who quit officiating only five years ago. “But it’s not a business you’re going to get a whole lot of public gratification from. You’re under a lot of scrutiny.”

Changes for safer play

Dreibelbis joined the high school association, based in Chapel Hill, 10 years ago, and has since made a mark both locally and nationally.

He serves on several national rules committees, and recently stepped down as chair of a subcommittee on basketball equipment.

He says that over the past five years, revelations about the danger of head injuries have led those groups to adopt an unusual number of rule changes in football aimed at minimizing head injuries, such as increased penalties for hits to the head.

One change he spearheaded, a mandatory break from the game for football players whose helmets come off, was adopted nationally.

The state association did research on the number of times helmets were coming off, and did a pilot study on whether the rule change would prompt players to wear better-fitting helmets and avoid head collisions – both keys to safer play.

His organization has also instituted a wide-ranging effort to educate players and coaches about head trauma. Those efforts include teaching about proper tackling techniques, and rule changes such as limiting the number of hours per week players can do full-contact practices.

But he notes that football is not the only sport that is changing to be safer. In baseball, elbow surgeries for pitchers have become so numerous that a new rule is being considered to create a weekly limit for the number of pitches they throw.

Some issues arise from the increasing intensity of high school sports.

“The athletes are just so much more physically fit and better prepared to compete,” he says. “It speeds up the game, and that speed is always part of the potential for injury.”

Mentor and rule nerd

He’s a self-proclaimed “rule nerd,” who fields calls from little league coaches and a host of others about what kinds of jewelry athletes can wear or other obscure rules.

He crosses the state holding leadership conferences for student athletes and talking to them about such subjects as steroid use, hazing and bullying.

Leading by example

Another initiative brings high school athletes into middle school to teach core values and good decision-making to younger students.

“We try to develop the whole person in terms of decision-making,” he says. “Student athletes are natural leaders, and we want them to understand how to lead by example.”

This weekend, his group will hold its annual “Heart of the Champion” luncheon, where it will honor players who overcame obstacles to participate in athletics.

His coach training sessions have been taken more than 10,000 times in person and online. Much of that training focuses not on technicalities, but on how to be an effective role model and mentor to the students on whom they often have a deep and lasting impact.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t worry that they’re not listening. Worry that they’re always watching you,’” he says. “Our coaches are the people who have the most impact on our young people’s lives.”

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Mark Dreibelbis

Born: July 1955, Charlotte

Residence: Morrisville

Career: Associate commissioner, N.C. High School Athletics Association

Awards: Coach Educator of the Year, National Federation of State High School Associations, 2014

Education: B.S. health and physical education and M.A. higher education and administration, Appalachian State University

Family: Wife Rhonda; children Dusty and Kevin

Fun Fact: Dreibelbis experienced some unusual incidents during his time officiating high school sports, including the time a skunk got into the gymnasium during a basketball game.

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