Bill Simpson made his career in auto-racing safety equipment. He is most famous for inventing the first fire-resistant suits and demonstrating them on his own body. When Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore invited him to a football game in 2010, Mr. Simpson witnessed something that got the gears turning again.
“I saw a couple guys get wheeled out of the stadium on stretchers,” Mr. Simpson said. “And I asked Tom, ‘Those guys look like they’ve got a lot of protection on. What’s up with all that?’ He goes, ‘Oh, concussions. It’s a part of the game.’”
That made Mr. Simpson think, “That ain’t right. Our guys crash at a couple hundred miles an hour and very seldom do they get concussions,” he said.
But so is VICIS. And Impressio. And RockSolid and Defend Your Head.
As awareness of the long-term health risks of head injuries in football grew this decade, so did a burgeoning industry of ambitious startups. Neuroscientists and entrepreneurs are trying various approaches to solve the same problem. The future of the sport is at stake.
“The craziest thing happened — we’re trying to save football now,” said Joey LaRocque, founder of RockSolid. “It’s not about selling equipment, it’s not about selling gear. It’s not about doing anything other than [answering], ‘Can we get more kids to play the game, and then once they’re in the game, can we keep them in the game?’”
New gear for old problem
A year before Alex Smith was traded to the Washington Redskins, the quarterback picked up a VICIS Zero1 helmet and decided to wear it for his 2017 season with the Kansas City Chiefs. NFL players are allowed to choose which models to wear, and Smith had heard good things about the young company.
“I decided that for me, getting up there in years, why wouldn’t you put yourself in the best-performing helmet?” Smith said. “I figured it was a no-brainer.”
VICIS’s helmets employ a “column” structure that allows them to absorb hits more effectively, said Sam Browd, who co-founded the company.
“What we know is an important feature in concussive-type injuries are rotational forces, and the helmet was designed to absorb both linear and rotational forces,” said Dr. Browd, a neurosurgeon who runs the pediatric sport program at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “That’s what’s unique to the VICIS Zero1.”
During 2014 and 2015, VICIS won $1 million in grants from the NFL’s innovation contest, “Head Health Challenge II.” The money was not a make-or-break incentive because the company had millions of dollars more in investments, but it represented a validation that it was “on the right path,” Dr. Browd said.
The NFL has awarded more than 40 grants through contests like this through partnerships with General Electric, Under Armour and Duke University.
“Many of the technologies developed with the help of the league’s innovation challenges are already improving protective equipment on the field and beyond, including VICIS, and the NFL is excited to support them,” an NFL spokesperson said.
Chris Yakacki and Carl Frick, materials scientists at the University of Colorado, won grant money from the league, too, from a different contest called “1st and Future.” Their startup, Impressio, does not reshape helmets themselves but the padding inside them.
In the movie “Flubber,” Robin Williams’ character invents a rubber that can’t stop bouncing. Mr. Yakacki likens Impressio’s padding to “anti-Flubber” — rubber that doesn’t bounce at all. Their liquid crystalline elastomer foam is supposed to absorb energy across a range of environmental conditions.
Should players put new tech inside the helmet or over it? Defend Your Head invented a polyurethane foam shell to cover helmets that absorbed more energy and originally was meant to alleviate head impacts during practice. The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga’s team wore it last week during their first game of the season, and other colleges may soon follow suit.
Back in Indiana, Mr. Simpson designed what he called a dumbed-down auto-racing helmet. Made of carbon for stiffness, fiberglass for strength and Kevlar for impact attenuation, SG Helmets are much lighter than most football helmets.
RockSolid’s solution goes beyond equipment. Mr. LaRocque’s company created soft-shell helmets for non-contact practices, but they are part of RockSolid’s broader approach of rethinking how children learn the game: Start with flag football, shift into a “flex” league with limited contact such as open-hand blocking, and then begin tackling.
Mr. LaRocque and his chief operating officer, Caleb Hanie, are former NFL players. John Roman, the president of Defend Your Head, played offensive tackle for the New York Jets in the 1970s. Several others involved in these startups played pro or college football.
“It allows us to come from a place of genuineness — that we’re really trying to help the game and we’re not just some company that [saw] all the negative media attention in the sport and wanted to make a buck off it,” Mr. Hanie said.
The NFL has been criticized for not moving fast enough to address brain safety issues, especially chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), illustrated in the 2015 film “Concussion.” These grant winners feel that the league is doing a better job now of trying to make the game safer.
“They get a lot of grief, which much of is deserved, but at the same time they’ve really made great strides, I would say, in trying to take the right side of trying to improve the safety of the sport,” Dr. Browd said.
If there is one thing the companies agree on, it’s that they can’t claim their products will prevent concussions. Some of their websites place bold-lettered disclaimers on the front page about exactly that. Even Smith pointed out that it isn’t easy to pinpoint a moment when his VICIS helmet lessened a blow that had concussive potential.
“You’re never going to know if it actually prevents a hit. It’s impossible to figure that out,” he said. “All we do know is when they do all the clinical testing, it performs that much better than the rest of the helmets out there.”
As young as it is, VICIS has become the Goliath of the group, and competitors have their own opinions of the company. Mr. Simpson implied that there was a correlation between the Zero1’s introduction to NFL fields last year and the league’s 15 percent increase in concussions from the previous season, though no evidence affirms this.
Mr. Yakacki and Mr. Hanie said they liked what VICIS is doing, and Mr. Roman said they “offer a compelling story” with a high price tag. At $950, a Zero1 is not a reasonable option for all youth and high school players.
Representatives from Riddell and Schutt, leaders in the helmet sector, said they welcome the competition but take pride in their own innovative research and development. Schutt’s newest model, the F7, introduced “moveable plate technology,” and almost half of the NFL will wear Riddell’s SpeedFlex Precision-Fit helmets this year. The company maps out each player’s head and builds a custom-fit SpeedFlex helmet.
“The helmets will just get more and more personalized as we move to the future,” said Thad Ide, Riddell’s senior vice president of research and product development.
Creating a baseline
In 2009, Virginia Tech’s football equipment manager made a call to Stefan Duma, a biomedical engineering professor at the university. He wanted recommendations on which brand of helmet would be safest for the Hokies to use. Mr. Duma and his lab soon realized that no real information — no rating system — was available to the public.
Football helmets can hit the market if they pass standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), but Mr. Duma makes the analogy that a car might be safe enough to sell but not rated well in comparisons by Consumer Reports.
Mr. Duma created a star rating system and began testing helmets with a lab of about 20 people. They used the “drop tower” similar to what NOCSAE used and later added testing for rotational forces in addition to linear.
Manufacturers pushed back on Virginia Tech early on. Mr. Duma said some hired authorities to speak out against the star rating. Since then, he said, the relationships have become more professional. Although companies say they don’t design the helmets with ratings in mind, Virginia Tech went from awarding one five-star rating in its first year, 2011, to 15 five-stars this year.
Mr. Duma doesn’t see much of a leap in helmet performance on the way.
“My opinion is that the current football helmets are about 90 to 95 percent as good as they’re ever going to get,” he said. He added that football helmets are much safer than their counterparts in hockey, lacrosse and bicycling, and Virginia Tech’s lab is paying additional attention to areas with more room for improvement.
Unwilling to update
Still, not every player at the NFL level will switch to gear that rates better in the lab.
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots has stuck with a Riddell VSR-4 for years. So has Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. The theory is that the oldest NFL players are the least likely to change something they have used for years.
Ray Colello, a professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s anatomy and neurobiology department, took notice. His team conducted research by placing helmets on a machine with two pendulums and rammed them into each other from 1 to 150 G’s. They also tabulated the models that 165 NFL players wore when they sustained concussions during the 2015 season.
His paper this year in the Journal of Neurotrauma argued that the easiest way the NFL could reduce concussions would be to mandate that players wear only the safest helmets available.
“The NFL’s known about [the star system] since 2011, but they’ve continued to allow players to choose any helmet they want to wear on the playing field,” Mr. Colello said.
That is, until this year. The day after Mr. Colello’s paper was published, he received a surprise call from Jeff Crandall, chairman of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Engineering Subcommittee. Mr. Crandall said Mr. Colello’s research confirmed the league’s own findings. In April, the league announced that it would prohibit players from wearing the 10 lowest-rated helmets.
The VSR-4 was one of the models the league banned. So were three made by Schutt, four by Rawlings (which has stopped making helmets altogether) and two early SG models. The companies did not feel the news was significant because they no longer produced any of the 10 models.
“We always encourage our players to try out our latest technology,” Riddell spokeswoman Erin Griffin said.
Players like Brady who wore the VSR-4 or three other prohibited models last year were given a one-year grace period before having to switch.
It remains to be seen how that rule will help concussion numbers in the league, but it is hardly the only change aimed at player safety this year.
Maybe science can’t save football on its own. The equipment of tomorrow doesn’t take the violence out of the game. That is where rule changes, and all the hand-wringing that comes with them, enter the picture.
Five states, including Maryland, considered legislation this year to prohibit children under a certain age from tackling in football. None of the bills passed in the General Assembly.
At the NFL level, though, players will be penalized if they are caught lowering their heads to “initiate and make contact” under Rule 12.2.8.
Helmet entrepreneurs weren’t unanimous on the changes. Some, including Mr. LaRocque, were against the idea of preventing children from tackling. Even Dr. Browd, the neurosurgeon, said football might be more dangerous if players don’t learn how to tackle safely before they get into high school programs.
Glenn Tilley, CEO of Defend Your Head, said equipment is just one aspect of making the game safer and applauds the league’s rule changes.
“I think the NFL has done a terrific job with analyzing the game itself and the style of play. What changes as a result of rules could help mitigate the risk of an injury in general, not just the head,” Mr. Tilley said.
Redskins coach Jay Gruden called Rule 12.2.8 “a work in progress” after a preseason game in which one of his players was penalized for what he thought was a clean tackle.
“[When] guys running full speed, you’ve got to get your pads down. Your pads go down, your helmet’s going to go down slightly,” Gruden said. “It has to. I mean, last time I checked. So hopefully we get it cleared up by the time the regular season starts because right now it’s a little confusing.”
A combination of state-of-the-art technology with more refined, common-sense rule adjustments seems to be the most likely solution. Consider the training camp guidelines the NFLPA passed in 2011 to limit live contact in practice. Around the same time, some NFL teams began turning to MVP Drive robotic tackling dummies, which are basically remote-controlled punching bags on wheels.
Dartmouth engineers developed the robots to give the college’s football team something to practice on while preserving their bodies. Fifteen NFL teams and 22 Division I programs have adopted the robots, the company says.
Although technology can be found all around a football field, the helmet is the natural place to look when brainstorming how to save players’ brains.
It’s tough to say what the football helmet of 2023 will look like. Perhaps it will combine VICIS’s structure with Impressio’s padding and a Protech shell. This year’s helmets, whether made by a legacy company or a new entrant into the market, are safer than ever.
“If I look at my helmet from the Jets compared to the helmets of today, it’s day and night,” Mr. Roman said. “You would never find a parent that would let a young player play with some of the helmets that I played with years ago.”
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