“Head Bangers Ball Game: Part 2” – By Ger Sayers
Hello everybody! Here we are with part 2 of our look into head injuries in the NFL. This time, we will look into some of the most popular helmets, designs, materials and technologies along with some other gadgets that are used. The main thing to remember is that I’m not a medical professional and I am not giving advice on what will work and what won’t. It is all my own opinion and is not to be used as a be all and end all guide. This is simply here to give an example of what products are available. All info I will use is freely found on the web and if you are buying some equipment, do your own research, try it on and see how it fits and most importantly get advice from people who truly know what they are talking about, not just some Paddy on the internet! LET IT BEGIN!!!
~ A Violent Reaction ~
So as I said in part 1 (go read if you haven’t!), I have a tonne of experience in the automotive world and I love the field of crash safety. One thing we don’t even think about as drivers if we are unfortunate enough to be in a crash is how our bodies react in the moment. The seat belt, when worn correctly, is designed to keep you in the seat, sitting upright and not moving a hell of a lot no matter where the point of impact is. Cars will also deform and break apart in order to stop the force of the crash going to the driver. Just watch motorsport for long enough and you will see how a car is meant to react in a crash. In a high-speed incident, the car should strip itself of everything that doesn’t keep the driver safe. Quarter panels, wheels even engines and gearboxes in certain motorsports like NASCAR can be flung from a wreckage. In fact, it can be safer to be in a crash at a race track rather than spectating or being a marshal. These designs were not an accident. Once it was thought it was better for people to flop around inside the car so cars were built like tanks to take the brunt of the impact without as much as a mark on the car but the people inside would be bounced to death.
So why oh why has this anything to do with football? It’s a similar journey that helmets have taken in the NFL. From the first ideas to the improvements in technology to a better understanding of what happens when during and after someone has been concussed, it all has an effect but it will take time for it to improve to the level we all wish for the safety to be. People are right to be upset that evidence of what concussions do to the brain was ignored when it was first available. All that being said we do have to allow the league to figure out where it’s going from here to stop a repeat of the past.
~ Pushing The Envelope ~
We’re gonna start this bit about helmets from around the 1950s onwards because that is roughly when the football helmet we know today, plastic with facemasks and not the leather caps, started to turn up in the league. Advances like bladders filled with either air or in the case of cold Lambeau Field, an antifreeze solvent inside the helmet for a better, tighter fit also aid in taking some of the impacts that comes with getting upended in the rough and tumble world of football. Moving on to the 1970s and 80s, came the fitting of foam-like interior pads for the helmet. The last big thing that really occurred on the material side was when companies began to make helmets out of Polycarbonate, the same stuff used to make Bullet-Proof Glass, came to the front in the 80s and 90s. In the last couple of years, the design seems to be king with most companies seeming to be relatively happy with the general construction for their helmets but one, relatively new company is trying to change that which we will talk about in a bit.
We see helmet history going from none to the leather strap things to the plastic ones, riding the technology wave to try and make better and better products. Sure, my hero and your new friend, Lawrence Partick, wore an early plastic football helmet during his rocket sled rides as one of the few bits of safety equipment he allowed himself to use. The future of helmets is also following the way the automotive industry has gone, now realising that merely deflecting blows is not sufficient enough in the fight against head and brain injuries. In fact, absorbing them is the brand new Cadillac.
~ Just So You Know ~
So we will now jump into the helmets used in the NFL today. This will not be a definitive list because NFL players can use pretty much any helmet that meets the NFL standard, the NOCSAE. I will look at the best lines, as per the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings 5 Star System combined with The NFL Helmet Performance Lab Tests from 2017, and the latest in these lines since if someone ignores my warning at the start, they can at least have some info on the latest and greatest helmets on sale today.
As it stands, most NFL players wear one of four companies, Riddell, Schutt, Xenith, and Vicis. The only other companies mentioned in the top of these lists are Rawlings, who no longer make football helmets, and SG, who didn’t have a 2017 listing but do have one coming out in the new year.
Riddell is the original plastic helmet company and famously where the only company allowed to have their name on helmets for many many years. The also love to sue fellow football equipment makers. The two lines they sell now are the Speed and the SpeedFlex. The big difference between these helmets is the Flex has a large flap on the crown of the helmet, which transfers the blows from the outer shell to the padding inside. Whereas the Speed looks like a traditional football helmet.
Riddell sparring partner from the early days of the plastic helmet which has resulted in both suing one another to the point Schutt went broke and were bought out by an equity firm in the early 2000s. Schutt’s offerings are the Vengeance and the Air XP. There is a couple of different types in each line but depending on which one you pick, the rating on the Virgina Tech and NFL testing changes. Schutt’s big thing is their use of TPU or Thermoplastic Polyurethane inside the helmet for its shock absorbing ability.
Started in 2006 but not releasing a helmet until 2009, Xenith’s success is down to the “Shock Bonnet” system they have developed. To put it simply, the outer shell and inner structure can move independently of one another due to the outer sitting on a system of several hockey puck-like TPU disks. Their chin strap system also connects to the inner bonnet rather than the shell of the helmet. This has allowed Xenith to achieve a glove-like fit by only adjusting the chin strap itself and without the need to use an air bladder system. Xenith’s lineup is the EPIC+ and the X2E+, both scoring high on both sets of tests
The latest and possibly greatest helmet is just out on the market this last season, the Vicis ZERO1. With players like Alex Smith and Doug Baldwin along with Hall of Famers Jerry Rice, Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett and Tim Brown all early backers, this company have made some bold claims about the level of protection their helmet offers and they seem to be backing it up. The ZERO1 is a bit of a revolution in helmet design. It quite literally is inside out compared to its rivals. The outer shell is soft and can flex on impact while the hard inner is designed to protect the skull from fracturing. Between the two there are lots and lots of individual energy absorbing columns, similar to the Xenith Shock Bonnet, along with the usual foam liners and air bladders. The fitment of the helmet has over 300 configurations to get it to fit perfectly. The big sticking point to the average player is the price. At $1,500 plus tax and shipping, it’s nearly triple the price of its rivals but it finished top of the NFL lab test in its first attempt.
~ We Believe ~
Besides helmets, other equipment has been used and/or claimed to help reduce concussions over the years. Gum Shields/Mouthguards have always been used to protect teeth and jawbones from being smashed from impact but some people have touted that they can help with preventing concussions and the brain moving in the skull. By biting on the guard, some claim, it locks your neck and jaw muscles and restricts movement in the skull. While this sounds like a sensible idea, the evidence is lacking. How many times have you seen someone knocked out with an uppercut? I have personally been knocked the f*ck out while biting on a shield when drilled in the face during a spot of boxing sparring (in fact, hitting the floor is what woke me up!). For those uninitiated, when your brain gets ratted, you hit the floor! Sometimes you can bounce up right away or other times you lie there completely unsure what happened, where you are or even who you are. No matter how much you spent or how good your mouth shield/gum guard is, it won’t stop your brain doing a little Quickstep in your head if the force is strong enough but your teeth will be lovely!
One of the more unusual items I have come across is a bit of kit called The Q Collar. Basically, some very smart people worked out that a Woodpecker used its tongue to regulate the pressure and volume inside their cranial cavity and stops the brain from bouncing around inside its head when it is doing the wood peaking thing. Q Collar reckons if you restrict the blood flow by applying a little pressure to the Jugular Vein in the neck, it increases the amount of blood in the brain. It’s basically like kinking a hose, the amount of fluid behind the kink is larger than after. While Q30 Innovations, the company behind it, have said they have the evidence to back up the claim, it’s still not approved for sale in the U.S. by the FDA. This tech has even been tested at NFL level though as serial concussion suffer, Luke Kuechly has tried it out. He still found himself in Concussion Protocol for two weeks this year so the jury is out on its effectiveness. I do think if something can reduce concussion it should be used but messing about with amounts of fluid or pressures inside the head and brain without proper, ironclad, undeniable evidence is a dangerous game.
The last bit of unusual kit I came across is the most famous one, ProCap. It was basically a second helmet that fitted over your regular helmet. It apparently reduced blows by as much as 30% but looked as ugly as sin. I have struggled to find detailed information about this product and it looks like it died sometime around 2012 as that is the last post on their Facebook page and their website is dead. Mark Kelso, the former Buffalo Bills player, was its most famous user. It suffered from a major drawback. Due to its bulkiness, the extra weight of the cap could cause catastrophic neck injuries when a player got drilled while wearing it.
Another company going by the name of Defend Your Head has looked to bring this technology back as a soft layer on top of a regular helmet. They have streamlined their design compared to the old bulky ProCap to minimize the weight issue but with products like Vicis Zero1 and no doubt that other companies are working on soft shell helmets of their own, it might be a product that goes the way of the leather football helmet.