Written by SportsDayDFW.com
Helmet manufacturers, coaches try to protect players with advanced technology
Fourth of four parts
FORNEY - In Hank Semler's office, just beyond the North Forney High School field house, a shiny, plastic helmet sits on the shelf. It wouldn't catch anybody's eye at first glance. It's a pretty standard decorative item for a coach's office, after all.
But to Semler, that shell and face mask symbolize the fledgling program's emphasis on safety.
"Those helmets are definitely his pride and joy," said Sloan Walls, a junior safety. "They are like his babies."
As awareness of the dangers resulting from concussions grows, more coaches and athletic trainers are seeking solutions in improvements in headgear.
North Forney, a Class 3A program that was launched two years ago, paid between $150 and $200 apiece for 250 helmets made by Xenith, a company that devised a revolutionary approach to headgear and is a newcomer among traditional manufacturers such as Riddell, Adams and Schutt.
But while medical experts are heartened with advances in technology that can reduce the risk of head injuries, they caution that there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet.
"The consensus is that there are no helmets or mouth guards that will prevent concussions," said Tamara C. Valovich McLeod, a leading national concussion expert and an associate professor of athletic training at A.T. Still University in Arizona.
"Maybe there will be something down the road," McLeod said. "If someone could design a helmet that could prevent concussions, that would be like winning a lottery ticket."
Signs of progress
While that breakthrough may never come, progress has been made in recent years as helmet manufacturers have responded to the growing concern about head injuries.
Simbex, in partnership with Riddell, developed an apparatus that can be placed inside the helmet, measures and identifies the location of head impacts and transmits a wireless signal to the sideline athletic trainer. Oklahoma is one of several colleges that have used the Simbex Head Impact Telemetry (HIT) system, which made its debut in 2003.
"It's still largely a research tool for us," said Scott Anderson, the head athletic trainer at Oklahoma. "It gives us information on concussions ... and it could have an impact on how we manage concussions and recognize concussions. But we're not there now. It's still a work in progress."
And while Oklahoma has the funds to invest in HITS technology, few high schools have the financial wherewithal to purchase what amounts to a diagnostic device. The cost to outfit an entire team with the Riddell Revolution IQ is $60,000 to $70,000, and highlights the differences among the various levels of football with regard to headgear.
The issue came to the forefront in the last couple of weeks, when the NFL released data from a helmet-testing program that elicited criticism from outside parties who claimed the results could compromise the safety of youth athletes.
In the trials, three helmets (two produced by Riddell, one by Schutt) performed better than 13 others. But several medical experts questioned the study's methodology and whether the helmet's safety performance can translate to all levels of play.
One of them was Dr. Robert Cantu, a senior adviser to an NFL committee on head injuries and director of the Neurological Sports Injury Center at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
"It can't be interpreted as showing product A or product B as being better or less protective against concussions," Cantu said. "It wasn't tested to a standard that had anything to do with concussions. And my concern is that given what human nature is, the wrong conclusions will be drawn. I just want to see better products and better protection out there."
Safety comes first
So does Semler, who came away impressed when he witnessed a presentation by Xenith at a coaches convention a few years ago.
Xenith, which pulled out of the recent NFL testing because of the study's procedural approach, primarily markets its product to athletes on the amateur levels. Semler liked what he saw, and he equipped his players with Xenith helmets last season.
"Sports are about tradition, even down to the equipment," said Semler, whose team will make its varsity debut this season. "And we didn't have tradition."
For Semler, traditional headgear seemed to always present problems. The foam padding in most helmets - even those that were reconditioned and recertified yearly - deteriorated regularly when he was on staff at Southlake Carroll. Sometimes, the air bladder that was supposed to provide cushion would leak.
"And that's when a child's safety is compromised," Semler said.
When Semler played in high school, he wore a plastic shell that was held together by four canvas straps. The primitive technology didn't safeguard him against multiple concussions. He doesn't want his players to suffer the same fate, especially after considering the recent studies.
Last summer, a report published by the Dallas-based National Athletic Trainers' Association showed that high school football players suffer greater head accelerations after impact during play than college football players, which can lead to more concussions.
"And nothing," Semler said, "can replace a caring, knowledgeable coach that has that child's welfare at heart. They are going to make sure that child's skull is protected."
So far, Semler has been pleased with his purchase. Last season, one North Forney player suffered a grade-one concussion, said Deniese Anderson, a licensed athletic trainer at the school. The year before, four concussions were diagnosed.
Those numbers were reflected in a report by Xenith, which claimed that the number of diagnosed concussions among the seven high schools outfitted entirely with its helmets had decreased since the equipment switch had been made.
Those positive results are touted by Vin Ferrara, the CEO of Xenith and a former Harvard quarterback, who said he started his company to seek a solution to a problem that affects thousands of athletes a year.
"And with the attention being paid to head injuries," Ferrara said, "it seemed like good timing."
Deriving inspiration from a squeeze bottle, which had an adaptive response to impact, "he came at it with an entirely new concept," said Cantu, who consulted with Ferrara shortly after Xenith was founded in 2004. "And I encouraged him to pursue it."
The signature elements of Ferrara's new-age helmet are the 18 thermoplastic nodes filled with air.
When a player suffers a hit, Ferrara said, the shock absorbers respond to the degree of impact and adjust the helmet's compression to the magnitude and direction of the blow, decreasing the sudden movement of the head.
Stabilization is reinforced by jaw pads and a unique set of chin straps, which are built into the helmet, attached to drawstrings, and designed to ensure a snug fit.
And while concussion-proof head gear remains a myth, the Xenith X1 has made a difference, according to several North Forney players.
"After games, I would get headaches," junior running back Giresse Forchu said. "Then, once we started using [the helmets], I wouldn't get them as much."
That kind of testimony brings a smile to Semler's face. After all, he said, there is no price tag on peace of mind.
"At the end of the day," he asserted, "I just wanted to put our kids in the safest equipment possible."
Staff writer Brandon George contributed to this story.