Can a safer football helmet look cool?
It seems like concussions have shown up in every corner of the football world over the past year: on the field, on locker room posters, in Congressional hearings, in labor negotiations. There's even a blog devoted to them.
Whenever you talk about concussions, you inevitably end up talking about helmets. The problem, of course, is that most attempts to create a more concussion-proof football helmet have looked impossibly dorky, from the ProCap (almost universally referred to as the "Great Gazoo" helmet) to the more recent Gladiator. Most players would rather get knocked out cold than wear something like those.
Ah, but what if a safer helmet could also look totally badass? Specifically, what if it could look like this:
Photos by Aaron Peters.
That's the Bulwark, a new helmet concept making its way through the patent and prototype process. We'll get to its safety features in a minute, but first let's talk about its visual aspects, which are pretty cool.
As you can see, the Bulwark's outer shell consists of five distinct panels, any of which can be swapped out for a panel with a different color, a different stripe pattern, or whatever. This means one helmet can have a wide variety of mix and match options. If a team simply stocked two colors or patterns for each panel, it would have 32 possible helmet combinations. Granted, some of those wouldn't look so good -- you probably wouldn't want a green panel on the left and a silver one on the right, or stripe patterns that don't match up -- but it would still open up a new frontier of visual possibilities.
The Bulwark is the creation of 41-year-old industrial design engineer Michael Princip, who's been working on the helmet for about two years. Princip is a pretty serious football fan: He has a website devoted to game-used Seahawks gear, another one devoted to NFL-related artwork, and a page where he tracks Oregon's endless uniform combinations. He also has a large collection of helmets from different eras, and that's how he got the inspiration for the Bulwark.
"I especially like the old MacGregor helmets with the separate seamed sections," says Princip. As you can see, many of those helmets used different colors for the different panels and sections. That was the start of Princip's sectioned concept for the Bulwark -- a newfangled approach borrowing from an old-school design.
But the Bulwark's sectioned panels aren't just cosmetic. The outer plates are positioned over an inner shell, and that combination of elements -- the distinct panels and the two shell layers, with a thin layer of padding in between -- is the key to the helmet's anti-concussion design.
"The whole point of sectioning it is to isolate and dissipate an impact before it reaches the inner shell," says Princip. He then launches into a detailed explanation studded with terms like "thermoplastic urethane" and "coronal plane" and other bits of engineering-ese, but here's the short version: With a traditional helmet, the force of an impact can rattle throughout the entire structure, but the Bulwark is designed to localize the force in one area of the exterior paneling, so only a small amount of disruptive energy reaches the inner shell. It's sort of like how having individual shock absorbers for each wheel of your car is better than having one big shock absorber for the whole undercarriage.
ON THE WINGS OF HISTORY
The old MacGregor helmets that served as the inspiration for Michael Princip's Bulwark concept are similar to Spalding's old "winged" helmets, which are the basis for the design still used today by Michigan and a handful of other schools.
For years, the party line has been that the winged helmet was first used by Princeton coach Fritz Crisler in 1935 and then moved to Michigan when Crisler began coaching there in 1938. This basic storyline is repeated all over the Internet.
But over on the Uni Watch Blog, we've recently found several examples of schools using the winged design prior to Crisler's 1935 Princeton squad, including Michigan State in 1934, Indiana in 1933 (lots of additional photos here), and Ohio State in 1930.
The lesson here is twofold: First, no team or coach "invented" the winged helmet design -- it was simply a Spalding stock item that several colleges used in the early 1930s (and probably lots of high schools, too). And second, history isn't always as neat and tidy as the party line would suggest.
-- Paul Lukas
Concussions still aren't fully understood, even within the neurological community. But the more we learn about them, the more convinced Princip is that he's on the right track. "We're discovering that a lot of concussions don't happen from the biggest hits, but from what almost look like glancing blows," he says. "And this helmet is the glancing blow annihilator, because of how the blow is dissipated before it gets to the inner shell. I think that's where this design is most effective."
In addition, the sectioned panels should make it easier to customize a helmet for a particular position or player. If you want to add more protection for, say, the left side of the helmet, or the crown, it's easy to beef up the padding on that panel. And Princip says he's achieved all this without making the Bulwark any larger than a standard Riddell or Schutt helmet, so there's no Gazoo factor. Even better: The Bulwark will weigh in at about three pounds -- a pound lighter than most other helmets on the market.
Now, some folks out there -- maybe you -- are probably thinking, "Give it up already! Football's a violent game and you're never going to eliminate concussions entirely."
Princip hears you. "Look, this helmet is not going to prevent all concussions or all neck injuries," he readily acknowledges. "But there are things you can do to limit them. And this design will do that. I know it works, at least in terms of the physics, just from comparing it to all the helmets in my collection. Getting people to make the leap, to the point where they'd want to switch helmets, that may be trickier."
Actually, that's just one of the tricky aspects of making the Bulwark a reality. Princip also needs to make a working prototype (the one shown in this article is a display version, with some of its components made from placeholder materials), have it tested and certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, go through the patent process, attract investors, and all the other tedious things inventors have to deal with when creating a product.
The biggest hurdle of all, as Princip knows, will be cracking the insular world of the helmet industry, where companies like Riddell and Schutt may take a dim view of an upstart designer. But Princip doesn't want to compete with them -- he hopes to sell or lease the Bulwark concept to one of the established helmet brands and then be part of the development team that brings it to market.
But that's all in the future. For now, the Bulwark stands out as the first concussion-reducing helmet concept that today's player wouldn't be embarrassed to wear. Or as Princip puts it, "You can have a great-looking sports car, but it doesn't mean anything if you have a bad engine. This design has both."
Last month's column on cross-dressing -- players in one sport who wear equipment from another -- prompted lots of additional examples from Uni Watch readers. So we can now add the following athletes to the cross-dressing roster:
• Tom Brady and some other NFLers have been wearing a surfing wetsuit for cold-weather games.
• During warm-ups for the NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day, Pascal Dupuis of the Penguins goofed around by strapping on a Steelers helmet.
• Mo Vaughn used to wear Cooper hockey pads.
• Phillies manager Charlie Manuel broke his jaw while playing ball in Japan in 1979 and ended up wearing a huge football face mask.
• Someone on the 1984 Texas A&M baseball team -- Uni Watch isn't sure of the player's name -- also went the face mask route.
• Yet another non-football player with a football face mask: Paul Henderson of the 1972 Maple Leafs.
• When UNLV hoops player Greg Anthony broke his jaw during the 1989-90 season, he borrowed from two sports by wearing a hockey helmet with a football face mask in practices (although never in a game).
• A 1960s high school lacrosse player named Art Murphy wore a football helmet.
Do you know of more cross-dressing examples? Send them here.
(Big thanks to all contributors, including Kurt Fritz, Brian Codagnone, Matt Beahan, Todd Hotz, Scott Snow, Mike Hersh and Ben Roth.)
Paul Lukas is proud to be the very first person other than Michael Princip himself to try on the Bulwark. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.