Football helmets evolve as concerns over concussions mount

Downingtown West football coach Mike Milano can remember what the helmets were like when he played at Downingtown more than 20 years ago.

"They were the old military suspension type," he said. "A web of material was all that was between your head and the shell of the helmet. There were leather ear pads and not much else. It's a whole different world today."

Today's helmet, whether used by an NFLteam or a high school team such as the Whippets, is much more sophisticated when it comes to preventing or reducing head injuries.

An estimated 43,000 high school football players a year suffer concussions, according to a Time magazine article earlier this year. Recent research has shown the devastating effects those concussions can have, occasionally years after the athletes have stopped playing.

The recent hit by Atlanta Falcons defensive back Dunta Robinson on the Eagles' DeSean Jackson, which forced both players to leave the game with concussions, demonstrated the results of collisions involving the head.

This concern over head injuries and recent research have prompted dramatic changes in football helmet technology. Manufacturers like Riddell, Schutt and Xenith have been rapidly introducing newer headgear designed to reduce the number of concussions.

Among the popular features on the latest headgear are air bladders that can be inflated to fit a player's head size and shape. The bladders are designed to hold the head steady during a collision so that it doesn't bounce off the interior of the helmet like the clapper in a bell.

"That's why they call it getting your bell rung when players took a big hit to the head," said Milano, whose squad is among area teams using some of the newest headgear.

Although the players can inflate the bladders, Downingtown West athletic trainer Joe Iezzi said most players ask their athletic trainers to do it.

Newer, technologically advanced helmets, such as the Riddell Revolution or the Xenith, which is described as self-fitting by its manufacturer, come withsignificantly higher costs, however. That leads to more strain on high school athletic department budgets.

Helmets can cost between $175 and $400 each, depending on the model and features. In fact, some models cost as much a $1,000 apiece. While the helmets may look the same, the difference is inside. For instance, the most expensive models can record the severity of the blows the helmet absorbs.

"We are in the process of trying the Xenith," Council Rock South athletic director Dan Griesbaum said. "We're looking at about six to 10 helmets. Players with prior concussions are using them. They are significantly more expensive, so in today's tight economy we have to watch our budget closely."

Although Downingtown West is using more Schutt helmets, it bought a number of Xenith helmets to test them.

"We initially bought 18 to replace helmets that we had to replace simply on the reconditioning numbers," Milano said, explaining that once a helmet reaches 10 years of age, it can't be reconditioned and must be retired. "I like the Xenith for its adjustability to a player's head."

Cherry Hill East athletic trainer Scott Hatch worked with the Baltimore Ravens until this season. Riddell is the NFL's official helmet.

"We're using the Revolution helmet based on a three-year study by the University of Pittsburgh," Hatch said. "It showsconcussions were reduced by 31 percent."

New and reconditioned helmets must have a seal of approval from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Sports Equipment (NOCSAE). Otherwise the equipment is banned.

The athletic directors and trainers applaud the efforts to improve helmet safety, but, like Griesbaum, they wish it could move more quickly.

"The biggest problem," Griesbaum said, "is that in terms of conclusive research there's not much out there."

 


Contact staff writer Don Beideman

at 267-815-0733 or dbeideman@phillynews.com.