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NFL looking to introduce new football helmets

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Current designs made to stop skull damage, not concussions

The NFL experimented with a new helmet design during minicamps this summer. The new helmet, called the VICIS Zero 1, has but one goal in mind: to diminish more of the force when contact is made which should reduce concussions.

NFL teams and their players are not required to wear the new helmets and is not a standard-issue piece of equipment. It is not even certain that these helmets will ever make the field in any actual NFL contest.

The league has the player’s union on board to try the new headgear. The helmets have been shipped to every NFL squad with the idea that players will try them out and get an actual prognosis that independent testing has data on but relies on live action for further development.

Almost four years in the testing and engineering phase, each Zero 1 has two layers. The outer layer engages most of the blunt force while the inner layer is designed to compress around the player’s head and then reform itself after the impact. It has been noted that this one piece of football equipment is probably the most tested product ever devised for the modern game. The testing done focused on eight different zones of the helmet with three different speeds to each area.

NFL players who use the new helmet are doing so on a voluntary basis and realize they are part of a survey to see if this new technology is valid and perhaps an answer in CTE or concussion risk.

College Test Grounds

Last season and this past spring four college teams tried out the new helmets: University of Auburn-Birmingham, University of Washington, Auburn University and the University of Oregon. Virginia Tech will be doing some testing later this year.

Washington and Oregon shipped the headgear back stating players complained about how the hats fit and were not comfortable over steady playing time. All four colleges made suggestions which allowed more tweaks to the design element.

With the new information that came out of the college programs, the main complaints were two specific areas. For one, pressure on the forehead area became apparent upon frequent contact. This caused discomfort. To fix this, the company added some padding and increased the helmet’s flexibility. The second complaint area was that the chinstrap would not stay fastened. The solution was to reinforce the location of the chinstrap snaps.

VICIS makes claim to being more than just a sporting goods company. They prefer to be known as a “technology company” with neurosurgeons, engineers, doctors and scientists on their payroll.

Price of Advancement

The price of each Zero 1 is $1,500 which doesn’t scare away NFL clubs if indeed this new technology can help players live a normal life outside of football once their careers are finished. VICIS’ target area for the Zero 1 is strictly professional and college football programs although any high school or other level can purchase them. But the cost per hat definitely changes which programs can afford to attain a new set. They even arrive custom painted in matching team colors. And there aren’t any special parts or brand-specific pieces that teams would need to have on hand in case anything breaks as these helmets are universal as far as chin straps, snaps and facemask attachments.

The NFL has its hand in the development of the Zero 1. They have provided grant funding through the “Head Health Challenge” program which netted the company just under $1 million for research and development. With player safety at the forefront of decisions concerning player equipment, the NFL has sent representatives to the VICIS laboratories and received periodical progress reports on the technology. And the NFLPA has also met with company agents in order to chime in on their concerns.

With this new helmet the weight is about the same as current models from current supplier Riddell Sports Group and Schutt Sports. If this new headgear works out well for the game of American football, other models would be manufactured for lacrosse, ice hockey and downhill skiing.

Early Helmets

The evolution of the football helmet is interesting. The very first head protection was actually padded ear muffs designed to stop a would-be tackler from ripping off a player’s ear with a tackle from behind. From there, another design had the muffs coupled with a nose protector. Next was a somewhat soft padded headgear which first appeared in the early 1900s in Pennsylvania with ear protection and an open dome.

By 1915, the Canton Bulldogs of the Ohio League started wearing larger soft leather helmets complete with ear muffs, a somewhat flat top and a headgear which covered more of the head. In the 1930s a hard leather helmet was devised and worn by the Chicago Bears with featured some interior padding and a more rounded outer shell. By the 1940s those same hard leather helmets were introduced with more outer padding, heavy ear packing protection, cushioned interiors and holes punched into the outer shell to allow head heat to escape.

Beginning in 1943 the NFL required all players to wear helmets.

The first plastic helmets appeared in 1940 and trademarked by John T. Riddell. His design had a somewhat flat top similar to those early leather helmets. The problem with this design, however, was upon certain straight-on contact hits, the helmet would break between the ear hole and the bottom edge of the helmet. Because of this most teams stayed with the leather versions available on the market. Riddell’s sporting goods company almost went bankrupt because of the design flaw of this helmet.

Riddell also invented and introduced the chin strap during this time period.

Once the helmet design was altered to a more rounded dome which allowed a player’s blow to the head to slide off instead of have added impact, the plastic helmet slowly made a comeback and would one day become the standard for every team at every level of the game.

Los Angeles Rams’ halfback Fred Gehrke painted ram horns on an old college helmet in 1948 and showed it to franchise owner Dan Reeves who commissioned him to paint 75 leather game helmets at $1 per hat. This was the first time logos were used.

In 1953, star QB Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns took a severe blow to the jaw during a game against the San Francisco 49ers. The injury required 15 stitches. Head coach Paul Brown fabricated a wire protective device to which it was attached to Graham’s helmet to protect his jaw. In 1955, Brown trademarked the device he called the “facemask” to which his family’s legacy still receive royalties today. That same year a single bar facemask became a favorite for players. In 1962, facemasks became mandatory with the single bar the most prevalent.

In 1956 Coach Brown experimented with helmet radio communication but only used it for two games before giving up on the project.

Helmets Go High-Tech

The first air bladder helmet was produced by Schutt Sports in the 1970s called the “AirTm Helmet.” Clear visors over the eye section of the helmet was introduced in 1984 by Minnesota Vikings DE Mark Mullaney. Although different colored visors have been used by many players since, the NFL has since banned the use of all but clear shields.

Pro Cap foam helmet covers for football use was introduced in the 1990s as radio transmitters for QBs became a standard in 1995.

Riddell designed the most widely used helmet today called the “Revolution” in 2002. Although each athlete may choose their own helmet, over 80% of NFL players use this type of headgear while Schutt predominately supplies the remainder. The “Revo” claims to reduce concussions by 31%. Both Riddell and Schutt have done concussion research and sell these headgear as helmets designed to reduce trauma caused by hit impact to the jaw and side of the head. The “Revolution Speed” helmet came out later and features a titanium facemask.

Ironically, one of the first major innovations regarding helmets was actually banned from the NFL in 2004: the single bar facemask.