The drive to minimize head injuries in sports is stronger than ever, especially in football. The NFL, recognizing the importance, has put stricter player-safety rules and policies in place -- but technology is catching up to offer preventive methods to combat the issue. Below are three high-tech products being tested and used in all levels of football, from Pop Warner all the way to the NFL. It should be noted that these innovations do not prevent concussions, but rather reduce the risk of head injuries.
1. Xenith X2 football helmets
• The idea: While former Harvard quarterback Vin Ferrara was pursuing his medical degree from Columbia University, he decided to develop better helmets in early 2004 after being shaken by a clip of hockey player Eric Lindros lying on the ice after a concussion. Ferrara is now the founder of Xenith, a company that produces advanced helmet technology.
• The 360: Xenith helmets use patented technology to minimize impact and head jolt. The helmet conforms to the player's head, creating a custom fit without the need for an air pump or any other device. Notably, Xenith claims to be the only helmet manufacturer to use what the company has termed "Shock Bonnet." This technology puts an emphasis on shock absorbers, which adapt to each blow at every impact level.
You probably haven’t heard of Xenith, but that's mostly because helmet brands cannot advertise on the field. However, even though Riddell has a deal with the NFL that runs through 2013, athletes are free to use helmets of their choice. Notable Xenith X2 wearers include Buccaneers TE Dallas Clark, Patriots CB Devin McCourty and Ravens RB Ray Rice, with whom the company has recently announced a partnership deal. Says Ferrara: “As of this training camp, more than half of NFL teams have players wearing Xenith.”
• Worth noting: Sales of Xenith have risen exponentially: 24,000 helmets in 2010; 65,000 in 2011; and a projected 80,000 this year.
2. X2IMPACT mouth guards
• The idea: In 2007, Rich Able’s son, then a high school junior, was knocked unconscious for nearly a minute playing football. It hit his father hard. But instead of just pulling his son from the sport, Able decided to do something about it, creating X2, a new company that focuses on head-impact monitoring technologies.
• The 360: X2 offers a high-tech mouth guard that monitors hits in real time. It is a custom-fit, standard boil-and-bite guard, but what makes it unique are the numerous embedded sensors that store data on the hits a player takes throughout the game. It can wirelessly send an alert to a trainer the moment a player is hit with high impact. An accompanying app allows the trainer to run the player through a series of tests to assess his/her condition. X2 has worked with Microsoft in developing the technology.
The mouth guards are at least a year from commercial release but X2 continues to expand its trials in various college programs. X2 is being used by a number of NCAA football teams, including Stanford, Notre Dame and the University of Washington. Stanford has expanded its use to women’s lacrosse and field hockey.
• Worth noting: UCLA head coach Jim Mora is an early investor in X2 and is chairman of the Sports Advisory Board.
3. Guardian Cap protective helmet covers
• The idea: A mother of five named Erin Hanson, seeing the need for better helmet technology for kids, created POC (Protecting Our Children) Ventures, which developed Guardian Caps.
• The 360: Guardian Caps are one-size-fits-all shells worn over helmets during practice. The waterproof, soft protector straps over a helmet and is designed to absorb helmet-to-helmet impact. Guardian has claimed the cap can reduce impact to the head up to 33 percent. Most helmets weigh 4 to 5 pounds; a Guardian Cap adds only .31 pounds of weight.
Each helmet cushion costs about $70 and lasts for up to two seasons. Currently, more than 200 teams, from youth through college programs, are using the Guardian shells. The company notes that, with 4,000 Guardians currently on the field, it has yet to hear reports of head or neck injuries sustained while wearing a Cap. Guardian hopes to expand its product for use in lacrosse and hockey.
Will we see Guardian Caps used in the NFL? Probably not anytime soon. At an NFL concussion symposium, Guardian Caps presented the Gladiator, a helmet with a fully integrated soft shell, for use in actual games. After review, the NFL determined that the product was too radical a change to incorporate into the league.
• Worth noting: Guardian Caps partnered with predecessor ProCap, which made custom helmets with extra cushioning. Former Buffalo Bill Mark Kelso sits on the Guardian Cap board and memorably wore a ProCap in the NFL from 1989 to 1993.