With alarming regularity, and often with next to no supervision, high school football players are changing the air pressure of their football helmets -- a potentially dangerous practice, experts say.
At football games across Southern California last weekend, Times reporters witnessed players hurriedly asking trainers, coaches, teammates, even student team managers, to either inflate or deflate the air bladders that line the inside of their helmets and cushion the impact of a hit to their head.
Small hand pumps were used to add air and ball needles were used to remove it, adjustments made quickly between plays on routinely chaotic sidelines.
"The trainers are busy, so I don't want to bother them," said Alvaro Calderon, a lineman from Woodland Hills Taft High. "I ask the water boy to pump it up."
Nationally last year, five of the seven fatalities directly related to high school football were from brain injuries, according to information from the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. Among them was Matt Colby, a 17-year-old senior from Costa Mesa High who collapsed after trudging to the sideline between plays of a game against Huntington Beach Ocean View in September of last year. He never regained consciousness and died the next day after being taken off life support.
A Gabrielino High lineman has been in a coma since Oct. 4, the result of a head injury. Andrew Castillo collapsed on the sideline during the fourth quarter of a game against Burbank, shortly after complaining of blurry vision, dizziness and a headache.
The cause of his injury has not been determined but earlier Castillo had told teammates he "didn't have enough air in his helmet during the game," fellow lineman Sam Dominguez said.
Gabrielino Coach Vince Lopez said the team usually has an air pump but could not locate it on the sideline that night.
Experts say not enough research has been performed linking brain trauma to under-inflated helmets, but they say improper inflation is risky.
"If you have no air, then if you get hit on the helmet, the helmet transmits the full force to the head, and the head absorbs whatever the impact might be," said Martin Holland, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. "The role of the bladders are to absorb the impact in the same way that air bags do in cars."
Holland said he attended a high school game in the Bay Area last week and was distressed by the discrepancy in the quality of helmets the players were wearing. "I don't know how much a school's budget plays a part in it, but not everybody has a top-of-the-line helmet," he said.
Air-fit helmet systems were introduced in the 1970s, replacing models with padded cells and suspension straps. The next step could be the Revolution -- a new, lighter model released this year by helmet manufacturer Riddell to decrease the risk of concussions by increasing protection to the jaw and side of the head.
However, most high schools are unable to replace their helmet stock at one time. A Revolution costs $160, about $60 more than a standard model. High schools typically replace 20% to 25% of their helmets each year.
Riddell declined to comment for this story after conferring with attorneys, a company spokesman said.
A properly fitted helmet is "of utmost importance" to a football player, said Dr. Robert Huizenga, an internist and former L.A. Raiders team doctor.
With jarring contact, Huizenga said, "Your head gets jostled around, and what happens is the brain, when it's suddenly stopped, decelerated suddenly, it hits against sharp projections on the inside of the skull. It bruises the brain. Even minor trauma can cause smaller blood vessels to bleed.
"A helmet can't protect you if it doesn't have the proper dissipation-of-force properties ... The importance of air has been factored in after years of research."
Don Morrow, football coach at Manhattan Beach Mira Costa, said players tinker with their helmets' air pressure for comfort. "There is a proper inflation level, but at most schools kids are tweaking that, putting more in or taking more out," he said.
A helmet that correctly fits a player at the start of a game or practice might feel too tight as his head swells after exertion. "The problem is when kids' heads will become so hot and they think they have to take air out of the helmet," Los Altos Coach Greg Gano said.
Players who purposely release air from their helmets to ease that sensation could be endangering themselves.
"Football is not a game of comfort," said John Castillo, who operates a helmet reconditioning business in San Antonio. "Some kids don't like helmets because they're too tight. They don't need to be comfortable -- they need to be safe. They need to have the helmet tight on their head. If it's loose, a player's head is going to float around that helmet when it shouldn't."