There was a time not too long ago that the topic of football and concussions was like that great-aunt who lives in the attic. No one wanted to talk about it. But in recent months former professional football players have sued the National Football League, former NFL linebacker Junior Seau killed himself over his health status due to brain trauma injuries suffered while playing football, and high profile players like Robert Griffin III and Michael Vick suffered concussions, which caused them to miss some games.
The NFL has held camps that have described tackling techniques that are meant to prevent injuries and executives of the league are more willing to talk about the issue.
Still, the fear of concussions and brain trauma injuries has caused parents to hold their sons back from playing football. Registration for youth league participation is down. People are actually saying out loud that football as a sport could be banned.
A recent study performed by the Center for Injury Biomechanics, a joint venture between Virginia Tech and Wake Forest Universities found that 2,000 players are in the NFL; 100,000 are playing in college; 1.3 million play in high school; and 3.5 million play in youth leagues. Moreover, it discovered that youth league players experience fewer and lower-magnitude head impacts than high school and college players. Still, youth league players suffer magnitude hits and most of those hits occur in practice. Kevin Guskiewicz, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, did a study in 2000 and found that 5.6 percent of high school players suffered at least one concussion per season compared to 4.4 percent of players in Division I colleges.
The issue is not how players tackle or that running backs may lower their heads as they confront a defender. The issue plain and simple is the helmet.
USA Today reported in May 2012 that former NFL player and Hall of Famer Warren Moon has been touting the benefits of new high tech headgear known as the Xenith helmet, designed by former Harvard quarterback Vin Ferrara, which has been on the market for about five years. The helmet includes 12 to 18 shock absorbers.
Lee Hanson, an engineer and scientist who has been involved in the development of a helmet that limits impacts on the head, said that the answer to the problem is a soft shell helmet. Hanson is co-owner of The Hanson Group LLC, a technology development company of engineers and scientists. He and a branch of his company were involved in the development of such a helmet.
“Doctors came to us just when concussions and brain trauma injuries of football players was becoming an issue about four or five years ago. These doctors thought they had a solution for reducing some of the injuries. Their solution was a fully encapsulated, soft-sided helmet they called the Gladiator,” Hanson began. “We worked with them on finalizing the project and developing a prototype with their raw materials, but it never really took off because it was too big of a paradigm shift for the sport and the people who sold equipment for it. The football sport industry was not ready for it.”
He and his colleagues at The Hanson Group dropped the project. However, Hanson kept the idea in his mind.
When the concussion talk started to get frenzied about a year or so later, Hanson realized that he already had a possible solution. “We had done all the testing and science behind it and we knew that it works. So we thought what stopped the Gladiator from getting to the Market? It was because it was too radical. So we decided to develop a soft cover or cap that fits over the top of a common football helmet that could easily be removed. One size fits all. So we developed the Guardian Cap based on the same raw material and concept used on the Gladiator.
“Fifteen medical doctors including neurosurgeons, neurologists, and specialists in other fields worked with us on this,” added Hanson.
The Guardian cap is made of custom urethane foam with the exterior portion made of a low coefficient fabric like spandex that has a decoupling effect. It fits over the top of the helmet and loops around the facemask with elastic straps and Velcro.
For Hanson, the material had to have a low coefficient of friction. “We needed something that slides when helmet hit helmet or the helmet hit the ground or a jersey,” he said. “It needed to have a lower coefficient of friction than the polycarbonate shell of the helmet. In addition, the helmet had to have decoupling capability so if a player were hit at an angle the cap would rotate and not the helmet. You wouldn’t have rotational torque, which could cause neck injuries,” he said.
The cap has been through a series of impact tests which involved placing a football helmet on a head form similar to a crash test dummy. The form had an accelerometer in it. It was struck at various speeds and the G-force that was inflicted on the head was measured. Then the tests were performed with a Guardian Cap on the helmet. “ Basically, we performed a standard helmet test without and with the cap. We compared measurements and found that there was up to 33 percent less impact intensity when the Guardian cap was on the helmet,” said Hanson.
“Players get a thousand hits to the head during a football season and most are low intensity hits that happen over and over again in practices or firing off the line,” continued Hanson. “ It’s the number of those hits over and over and over again that causes the problem.
“A study performed by Purdue University determined that the CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) is not from the big concussions. It’s from the number of small hits. If you can reduce the intensity of those small hits, then it is only going to be good,” said Hanson.
Since a majority of players that would wear the cap are sub-teen and teenagers, Hanson had to design the cap so that they would want to wear it.
“It was a big challenge trying to make something that didn’t look like a big bubble sitting on top of a helmet so athletes wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear it,” noted Hanson.
Hanson overcame the issue by designing the cap with various geometric shapes to it. “It looks different, but it doesn’t look like a bubble. It looks like a geometric shape with not a very big profile. We didn’t want to make 3-inches of foam on the helmet. It’s only three-quarters of an inch.”
Youth league, high school, and college players are already using the cap in practices and in some games. According to Hanson, several of the leading coaches in the country have endorsed it and encourage their players to wear it.
“The biggest colleges to use it are the University of South Carolina, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Jacksonville State, and Elmhurst College in Illinois,” said Hanson. “Individual Pop Warner leagues have been using it for the last year or so. Parents love it, coaches love it.”
Hanson added that the Pop Warner Organization in Pennsylvania say they don’t want it. “I don’t know why. Perhaps it has something to do with a major helmet endorsement. I don’t know.”
According to Hanson, many former NFL players have spoken highly of the cap. They include Fred McCray, who played for a number of NFL teams including the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots; Rodney Harrison, who played for the Chargers and Patriots; Mark of NFL teams including the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, and Chicago Bears.
Walsh is currently the head football coach at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Florida. He encouraged the school to purchase 36 Guardian Caps for use by his varsity football players. Players wear it during practice.
“Although the state has approved that players can wear the product in a game we haven’t because the kids think it looks kind of goofy,” said Walsh. “However, if we have a player who has an issue early in the year, we might have him wear it during games.”
Walsh played college football at the University of Miami. During a recent visit he told the school’s equipment manager about the cap and some samples were sent to the school as a result. Walsh also told the Miami Dolphins trainer, who had been his trainer when he was in college.
Andy Lowry, head football coach at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and the 2012 recipient of the American Football Coaches Association’s (AFCA) Power of Influence Award, used the cap last year and has ordered more. “He wants his freshman and junior varsity players to wear them during games,” said Hanson.
The Guardian Cap costs $55 each with team and league discounts available and can be purchased at the company’s website.
Hanson pointed out that the current cap is generation two and that the company is working on the next generation. He said the third generation cap would perform and look better. However, he added that it would take time to develop and test it properly before taking it to market.
He concluded that a full soft-sided helmet would ultimately be available in the future. “We already have a prototype. We just need to fine tune it,” he said.