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Steelers New helmet designs have concussions in mind

Sunday, July 28, 2002

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

In cartoons, a blow to the noggin produces tweety birds dancing around someone's head and that light's-on-but-nobody's-home look. In football, a blow to the head can result in a player's brain sloshing around, bumping against his skull and getting bruised, perhaps even disturbing brain activity.

Models on the new Steelers helmet designed to help prevent concussions are see n at the South Side practice facility. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette photos)

Reality can be a real buzz-kill, but concussions have become an all-too-common reality in sports. Players' careers are being shortened, and their long-term health is at risk.

Just ask former NFL quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman, two of many athletes forced to retire because of multiple concussions.

Scientists are scurrying to get more facts about concussions, but there already is a movement to try to reduce them in football through better helmets.

Beginning this season, fans who look closely will see several players wearing helmets that have a new-age appearance -- and that includes players with the Steelers, Pitt and some local high schools.

Two models -- the Revolution made by Riddell, and the Pro Elite made by Adams (formerly Bike) -- stand out for their redesigned look.

The Revolution is a little larger but lighter than previous helmets. It has large ventilation holes along the top. The facemask is more rounded as a way to deflect some hits rather than absorb them. For those who can afford them, the facemasks are offered in titanium, much lighter than the standard steel.

Most notable, though, is the shape of the Revolution helmet where it sweeps back toward the ear, then juts out along the jaw line.

It was designed in response to the first scientific study of concussions in football, which found that many concussions are caused by blows to the jaw and side of the head.

The study, conducted by Biokinetics and Associates, was partially funded by the NFL.

Safety Lee Flowers is one of several Steelers who tried the Revolution recently during coaches' workouts and minicamp. He's eager to see how it feels during full contact at training camp, which opened this past week.

"I feel more comfortable now in my eighth year [in the NFL] with this helmet than I did in the previous years," Flowers said. "I think I'm going to stick with it. It feels better. I have more movement. It's lighter. I have more vision."

He's also hoping the Revolution offers him a little more protection from concussions than earlier models.

The next generation

None of the three major football helmet manufacturers -- Riddell Inc., Adams USA and Schutt Sports -- can make claims about concussion reduction or prevention. All agree that no helmet is concussion-proof. Because of liability issues, they shy away from words such as "safer."

Related article

Local high schools chosen for helmet study


In fact, Riddell discouraged Pitt fullback Dustin Picciotti, who missed all last season after a concussion -- his second in as many years -- from switching to the Revolution this year, presumably out of concern that, if he had a third concussion, the helmet might be disparaged as ineffective.

Riddell officials wouldn't comment publicly about Picciotti, but they and other manufacturers expressed excitement about advancements in technology and design.

"We started designing the [Revolution] helmet based on the results of the research, but we wanted to take a look at other things to improve the styling, to make it look like the next generation of helmets," Riddell president and CEO Bill Sherman said.

Adams' Pro Elite was designed before the concussion research results, but it also looks different. It mimics the shape of the head, with a curved indentation in back.

It is designed to be lighter and more comfortable than older models and, like the Revolution, offers a titanium facemask.

The University of Tennessee has been the biggest client for the Pro Elite, with 33 of the 70 players who dressed for conference games last year using it.

"Our guys that wore it really loved it," Volunteers equipment manager Roger Frazier said. "Weight is a big-time issue with them.

"The theory behind it is that it was lighter and reduced fatigue late in the game. You want athletes to keep their heads up. When they get tired and start dropping their heads, that's when they become more vulnerable to head and spine injuries."

Frazier was surprised that players from a wide range of positions -- including three of the five starting offensive linemen -- requested the Pro Elite.

"I thought it would be mostly skill players, but it was a smorgasbord," he said.

Resistance to change

At Schutt Sports, president Julie Nimmons said her competitors' new looks might be a little gimmicky. Schutt, which supplies helmets to all levels of players, has not changed its shape in 15 years, but that doesn't mean the company hasn't kept up with safety issues.

Like the others, Schutt helmets have padding with air bladders and are being made lighter and stronger. Its latest model, the Air Advantage, was introduced last fall.

"I'm not saying we would never consider changing the shape, but I think change has to come in incremental steps," Nimmons said. "We never stop looking at what is happening on the field. We certainly are looking at research.

"I question the theory that any helmet is revolutionary. I see helmets as a product that has evolved and will continue to do so."

Schutt might have one advantage over companies who sell the newfangled helmets because players can be resistant to change.

Tennessee's Frazier said his players' initial reaction to the Pro Elite was that it looked like something Darth Vader would wear. They called it the Star Wars helmet. But they wore it.

At Pitt, equipment manager Tim Enright has ordered several Revolution helmets for this fall. He expects mostly incoming freshmen to use them.

"I'll offer it to the juniors and seniors, but I think the veterans, you'll have to work to convince them," Enright said.

Steelers field manager Rich Baker said some NFL players also balk at new things.

"A lot of guys don't like change for a lot of reasons," he said. "It's better stuff, but it's their choice."

Although it was kept secret at the time, Blackhawk was one of several high schools around the country that tested the Revolution helmet last fall.

Four Blackhawk players were selected to use it. Three wore it and liked it, Coach Joe Hamilton said. The fourth decided not to wear it after being teased about the way it looked.

"I'll tell you what, though," Hamilton said. "I don't think one person [from other teams] recognized that we had a different type of helmet.

"I thought it looked good. I think some of the features of it lend more safety. It seems to protect the jaw better."

More Blackhawk players will wear the Revolution this year. It is one of 12 local schools that, thanks to a grant from Riddell, will participate in a study this season. Six will use the Revolution, six won't, and the incidence of concussions will be tracked.

Rethinking design

According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, there are an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 concussions a year in high school and college football combined.

There is not enough data to suggest whether the new helmet designs will reduce the number or severity of concussions, but results from the Biokinetics study were offered to all helmet manufacturers.

"The NFL study has caused people to rethink some of the engineering of helmets," said Mark Lovell, director of UPMC sports concussion program and a neuropsychologist who works with the NFL, colleges and the NHL.

"As a doctor who works with high school kids as well as professionals, we're real excited that these new developments are on the horizon," he said.

There is an ongoing concussion study at UPMC looking at prevention, education and post-concussion evaluation.

More than 30 years ago, the concern in football circles was not concussions but severe brain injury. The non-profit National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) was formed. It developed a helmet- testing procedure that is now required at all levels of football.

Before the NOCSAE tests -- in which a certified lab drops new and reconditioned helmets from different angles, then examines them -- there were as many as 38 deaths a year in football from head injuries. That's down to about one a year, according to Joseph Crisco, research director for NOCSAE and an associate professor in orthopedics and engineering at Brown.

"The NOCSAE standard does not address concussions because there's very little scientific data," Crisco said.

That led the NFL to form a committee to study mild traumatic head injury (or concussion).

It recommended that the league help fund the Biokinetics research.

Biokinetics, of Ottawa, Canada, conducted the scientific study, which began in 1997. Three colleges in the United States helped with the study -- Allegheny College in Meadville, Duke University and Wayne State University in Detroit.

Biokinetics used NFL game videos to analyze the motions and speeds of dozens of head-to-head and head-to-ground collisions. They looked at multiple views of each hit.

Some of the hits resulted in concussions, and others did not.

Biokinetics then reconstructed more than 30 of the hits in its lab using helmeted dummies. It developed a head impact power index -- a parameter combining linear and rotational acceleration -- and measured that index on each hit with the help of tiny accelerometers inside the dummies' heads.

Biokinetics engineer Christopher Whitnall, who spoke last week at a UPMC conference on sports-related concussions, said hits with a 50 percent risk of concussion can carry a force as high as 17 horsepower.

That wasn't the most significant finding, though.

"The results were surprising in the sense that, in a lot of cases, we saw high power index numbers in collisions with the side of the head," said Biokinetics president and biomechanical engineer Marc Beusenberg. "The helmet wasn't originally designed to protect the side of the head."

The Revolution takes a step in that direction.

The side-impact finding was not surprising to Joseph Maroon, professor of neurosurgery at UPMC and the Steelers' neurosurgeon.

Lee Flowers tried out the new helmet at Steelers minicamp.

"What is a knockout punch in boxing? A hook to the jaw or side of the head, which creates a rotational element that can cause loss of consciousness," Maroon said. "So this study resulted in helmets with more padding over the bone lateral to the eye socket, called the zygomatic arch. There is a Z-pad now that absorbs impact to the side of the head.

"However, I think the jump to the conclusion that [the Riddell helmet] is indeed a revolutionary design is premature. I think it needs to be evaluated over the next five years or so."

The Biokinetics study also produced a new type of helmet test. It involves swinging a pendulum into a helmet that is affixed to a dummy's head with a flexible neck.

Working with Riddell, Biokinetics developed a protocol for a pendulum test that would hit helmets at specific spots.

Helmet-maker Schutt has tentative plans to begin using the pendulum test on its equipment.

The pendulum test might eventually become required, in addition to the NOCSAE test, in football.

Elliott Pellman, the New York Jets' team doctor and chairman of the NFL concussion committee, said the study will have the biggest impact on football and hockey, where players are repeatedly hit at high speeds.

In other sports, such as auto racing, helmets are designed to protect in just one big impact before being discarded.

A question of cost

The Steelers' Flowers said his teammates -- even some who hate change -- are intrigued by the Revolution and the possibility of a safer helmet.

"They have already asked me about it," Flowers said. "But they don't want to hear about how it feels just walking around. They want to hear about how it feels with contact. Training camp will be a big test."

If any of his teammates want to make a switch then, they can.

It won't be so easy for players at lower levels of football because of cost.

High schools and colleges have been spending about $100-$120 per helmet. The Revolution and the Pro Elite cost $20-$40 more each with steel facemasks. Titanium facemasks push the cost per helmet well over $200.

High schools and colleges can't afford to upgrade all their helmets in one year, and most can't afford titanium facemasks.

Pitt's Enright said he usually keeps helmets for the duration of a players' career, meaning he normally replaces about 25 percent of the helmets annually.

High schools often cycle in some new helmets every year, but it takes years for a complete turnover, said Tim O'Malley, athletic director at Butler, which used some of the Pro Elite helmets last fall.

If the new designs lead to a big reduction in concussions over the next several years, it could leave some teams -- particularly youth leagues and poorer school districts -- scrambling to keep players as safe as possible.

Pellman, of the Jets, thinks safety will prevail, though.

"It's a very good question because someone has to pay," he said. "But it's someone's head.

"As a parent, I'd do whatever it takes. I would protect my kid. I'm sure other parents would, too."

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