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New helmets should be a hit

They're not concussion-proof, but there are some that can measure severity of impact to the head. Shoulder pads are also being improved.

January 29, 2011|By Sam Farmer
  • Riddell is but one of many companies in the ultra-competitive field of developing helmets and pads for players at all levels of football.
Riddell is but one of many companies in the ultra-competitive field of developing… (Riddell )

Not so long ago, a football player knocked loopy by a hit to the head would get the "finger test" on the sideline. A trainer would hold up a certain number of fingers and ask the player to identify the number.

If the player could name the number — or thereabouts — he was cleared to return.

The NFL has taken the situation a lot more seriously in recent years, however, and will continue to emphasize the diagnosis and danger of head injuries.

Riddell, for one, has developed a futuristic system for measuring the severity of hits to the head, and tracking them over the course of the player's football career.

The company, one of several that makes helmets and pad systems, has specialized helmets fitted with accelerometers that capture, record and measure hits to the head. That system is transmitted and downloaded onto a laptop computer on the sideline, and a paging system notifies the team physician if an impact exceeds a certain threshold.

It's all part of an effort to make the game safer, while acknowledging injuries might be reduced but will not go away.

"In terms of continually improving the protection capability, there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet," said Thad Ide, Riddell's senior vice president of research and product development. "There are no concussion-proof helmets on the horizon."

Ide and his team are perpetually working on products that are more comfortable, more functional, more aesthetically pleasing, and of course safer.

He said he can envision a day when NFL players wear helmets specific to their positions. So, for instance, an offensive lineman might have extra protection from all the hits he absorbs to the forehead, whereas a receiver might have additional protection to handle a hit to the side of the head.

Riddell is but one of many companies in the ultra-competitive field of developing helmets and pads for players at all levels of football. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, after two concussions this season, switched from a Riddell helmet to a Schutt AiR XP. Soon, players could be associated with their helmets the way professional golfers are with their clubs.

And the research continues. Riddell is developing shoulder pads with a rip cord allowing them to be easily removed by one person. As it is, it takes several people to safely remove the pads from an injured player who needs an MRI exam or X-ray.

"I have very creative designers and engineers that work for me that get paid to think about those things," he said, later conceding that he occasionally does have to "reel them back into the practical world."

He said it's also important to remember how the equipment looks.

"We could make the most protective football helmet ever conceived," he said, "but if nobody will wear it because of the way it looks, it doesn't do anybody any good."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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