* Inventors try to build a better football helmet
* Coaches worried about player injuries
* Lawsuits by former pros spark wider concern
* Tweaks to rules part of the answer
By Scott Malone
BOSTON, April 2 As Americans grow more aware of
the risk of brain injury tied to football - the country's most
popular sport - players and coaches are experimenting with the
latest technology in a bid to make the game safer.
Advances in training have led to bigger, faster players who
have made the high-impact sport more dangerous, particularly at
the college and professional level.
U.S. football fans have witnessed devastating instances of
concussion-related brain damage and even death in players as
young as high-school age. Th ey include 16-year-old Ridge Barden,
16, who collapsed after a hit in a game in Phoenix, New York
last October and later died at a hospital.
Such grim examples have spawned the first major efforts to
redesign the football helmet since the 1950s, along with new
rules for playing the game. The largest U.S. helmet
manufacturers, as well as independent designers, are testing
novel ways to cushion big and small blows to the head, or to
provide immediate relief in the minutes after a major injury.
Gordon Powers, the coach of the Model High School football
team in Rome, Georgia, saw how important it was to do more to
protect players two seasons ago. He was sending more team
members to the bench who were showing signs of concussion.
"We were losing a lot of players that couldn't play in the
game on Friday night," Powers recalled. "We would do a drill and
if a kid got up real slow, was a little groggy, here comes the
trainer (who would say) 'OK, that kid's going to be gone for a
week.' We wanted to do something about it so the kids could
continue to compete."
Model High last year became one of the first high schools to
experiment with a helmet cover developed by The Hanson Group of
Alpharetta, Georgia and Protective Sports Equipment of Edinboro,
Pennsylvania. The cover, dubbed the Guardian, has 37 gel-filled
pouches that fit over a helmet and cushion against
helmet-to-helmet blows that are so dangerous that the NFL
aggressively penalizes them.
Powers' team wore the helmet covers only in practice because
they weren't sure local league rules would allow them to be worn
in games. Hanson Group owner Lee Hanson said even that helps.
"If we can reduce a lot of the concussions that happen
during practice and the compounding of all the hits over and
over again, that's going to maybe save somebody's life or their
brain and prevent future dementia," Hanson said.
Powers agreed: "The year before we used the Guardian, we had
10 to 12 kids that had to either miss a practice or two or even
a game because of head-injury symptoms. And this year we had
zero. So from that aspect, I'm sold on it."
Hanson sent out 600 samples for teams and players to test
during the 2011 season and this year aims to sell about 200,000
of them, for about $60 a piece. None of the players that tested
the Guardian last season reported a concussion, Hanson said, and
testing by Wayne State University in Detroit found the product
reduced the amount of shock felt through a helmet.
REASON FOR CONCERN
Research has shown that more than 4 million youth players
are at risk. A 2011 study by Nationwide Children's Hospital
found football players aged 6 to 17 are treated in hospital
emergency rooms for about 8,631 concussions each year. Many more
concussions may go unreported.
A separate study by the hospital found that football was
responsible for almost half of reported concussions among high
school athletes, above ice hockey, soccer and other sports.
One in five parents say they worry a great deal about their
child suffering a concussion from playing football or another
sport, according to a 2011 survey by Safe Kids USA, a non-profit
group that aims to prevent childhood injuries.
Parents are also faced with the reality that even the best
helmets available do not eliminate the risk. Laura Mason learned
that lesson when her son, Zack, was diagnosed with a concussion
in 2010 from a game in his sophomore year at Westborough High
School in Westborough, Massachusetts. He was wearing a new
helmet that she bought for him.
"He did take a head-to-head hit, he fell, but never passed
out, never got dizzy, it was just like normal," Mason said. "The
next day was a Sunday, he started having headaches, we didn't
think too much about it till he went back to school on Monday
and still had them. We called the pediatrician, brought him in
and he says, 'I think he's got a concussion.'"
Her son missed much of the next three weeks of school, and
didn't return to his full academic schedule for about four
months. He skipped football season in his junior year, but
intends to return to the game in the fall for senior year.
"I'll let him do it," Mason said. "I know my son. He's not a
real rough player, he tends to step back a little bit more, so
I'm OK with it."
MULTI-SECTIONAL HELMET, BUILT-IN ICE PACK
At the pro level, the NFL allows players to choose any
helmet they want that meets the standard set by the National
Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, a
voluntary industry group.
"We want our players to wear the best available equipment
using the latest technology," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said
in an e-mail. "We are encouraging all helmet manufacturers to
continue to improve helmets."
The NFL's helmet sponsor Riddell regularly tweaks the
padding and design of its equipment, while Xenith LLC's line of
helmets use air-filled pads rather than foam. Other companies
are testing more dramatic changes.
A New York-based startup company called Thermopraxis and
Schutt Sports - the largest producer of football helmets - are
working on a product called the Thermocrown.
Based on an idea developed by Brazilian neuroscientist
Renato Rozental, the device is a bladder that can fit inside a
player's helmet. In the event of a hard hit to the head, a
trainer or teammate would attach a source of cooling gas to the
bladder to lower the head's temperature and stave off damage.
The effect would be similar to applying an ice pack.
"A coach can initiate this in seconds," Rozental said. "The
concept can buy time, up to four to five hours, to allow the
patient to be transported from the field" to a hospital.
Independent industrial design engineer Michael Princip is
working on the Bulwark, which features multiple plates on the
helmet's exterior, instead of the single-piece design common
today. It is intended to dissipate the impact of big hits and
more frequent, smaller ones that are a part of the game.
Any of these designs would represent the biggest change in
football helmet technology in decades. Helmets started as soft,
leather caps in the early the 20th century, then gave way to
plastic shells with foam padding and facemasks in the 1950s.
CLEAR RISK, MULTIPLE SOLUTIONS
Research by Boston University's Center for the Study of
Traumatic Encephalopathy, found evidence of the disorder in the
brains of more than 50 deceased athletes. One of them, former
NFL player Dave Duerson, shot himself in the chest in February
2011, leaving behind the request that his brain be studied.
Earlier this month, the NFL suspended New Orleans Saints
head coach Sean Payton after he admitted to a "pay-for-pain"
bounty system that awarded his players bonuses for knocking
opponents out of the game.
While manufacturers and other inventors look for ways to
make helmets safer, most admit equipment is not the only answer
to prevent a worsening phenomenon.
The NFL has tweaked the rules intended to limit concussions.
They range from changes in game play, including moving the
kick-off line forward by five yards, to telling teams to keep
players off the field if they show memory problems.
"Over the past year to two years, there has been a dramatic
change in how the game is played, what's allowed, what's called,
what we do at practices," said Stefan Duma, head of the Virginia
Tech/Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and
But U.S. football helmet testing standards have not
significantly changed since 1980, when tougher rules on impact
resistance intended to limit skull fractures took effect.
Hundreds of former players have sued the NFL and Riddell,
alleging the league knew or should have known about the
long-term dangers of concussion but allowed them to play anyway.
The major helmet manufacturers - Riddell, Schutt, the
Rawlings unit of Jarden Corp and Xenith - have focused
mostly on fit, to ensure the wearer's head does not rattle
around like the clapper in a bell after a hit.
Fit is a challenge since most players wear helmets owned by
their schools or teams that have been handed down for as many as
10 years. Helmets can cost from $100 for youth-sized models to
as much as $375 for high-end ones worn by college players.
School programs can usually afford to replace helmets only every
"We're a big believer that every kid should have his own
helmet," said Vincent Ferrara, a former Harvard University
quarterback who founded Lowell, Massachusetts-based Xenith in
2004. The company charges $329 for its top-of-the-line X-1
"We've been accused sometimes of being self-serving," he
said. "But we look at all the other things that parents buy for
their kids, including their sporting equipment, and we think
football helmets should be right up there."
As a player, Ferrara suffered a concussion in the seventh
grade that led his mother to pull him from the sport for a full
season. After that, he was reluctant to admit when he was hurt.
"My history with concussions is probably fairly typical for
players, one diagnosed and then a couple of others that probably
could have been had I told anybody about it," he said. Now that
his 10-year-old son plays the game, he has a different attitude:
"I talk with him continuously about how you play the game and
keeping your head out of the impact."