Virginia Tech Helmet Study Gathers Data On Youth

There has long been a void of data over how impacts during games can affect the heads of football’s littlest players.

Oct. 28, 2011 – By Sarah Bruyn Jones

Decorien Hargrett, 7, stood on the sidelines, his dad’s hands on his shoulders, his mother hovering.

Decorien is a star on the Auburn Eagles football team. But during one of the team’s final games, held last week against the Mustangs of EastMont, he wasn’t feeling his best. Still, he wanted to play and was soon back on the field.

It’s his first year playing tackle football, and he has stood out, memorizing the plays and executing them well enough to earn praise from the spectators in the bleachers.

But while cheering him on, his parents have also had their concerns.

So when they learned that the Eagles were going to be part of a research study to calculate just how hits impact a child’s head, they were thrilled at the chance to know more – and possibly to contribute to improving the game for the littlest players.

The study has been quietly taking place throughout the season, which ends Saturday.

In August, eight players, including Decorien, received new helmets lined with sensors that measure and record the direction and magnitude of each hit the player sustains. It’s the same test that Virginia Tech has been running since 2003 on its football team.

The idea is that such data eventually could be used to evaluate the effectiveness of helmets, and even to rate them.

JaToya Hargrett, Decorien’s mom, said she hopes researchers consider doing it at every age group. After all, she said, kids grow and develop quickly, leading to improved strength and agility. Plus, there are the awkward years, when growing limbs can lead to tripping, falling or general clumsiness.

“I think it would help us to know more,” she said.

Information gathering

Virginia Tech engineer Stefan Duma is the professor behind the study, which has informed the national conversation surrounding football-related concussions. In the spring, Duma made headlines when he revealed data from his study of college football players and suggested that not all helmets offer equal protection.

Duma is friends with John Clark, the coach of Decorien’s team.

“We coached together last year on baseball,” Clark said. “Our kids went to school together as well. And he knew that football was pretty much my life.”

So when Duma said he was looking to study the head impacts of the youngest players, Clark suggested his son Tre’s team, which he coaches.

“Since my son is on that team, I wanted to do anything possible to keep this game evolving to be safer,” said Clark, who played football in college and is also a volunteer coach at Floyd County High School. “Even I hesitated about sticking my first-born out there in the middle of the football field to get creamed — it doesn’t sound like a rational decision.”

The data gathering has mostly been conducted by a graduate student, Ray Daniel, who is working with Duma. Daniel has been at every practice and game throughout the season.

He’ll spend the winter analyzing the data and hopes to publish in the spring. Preliminary results, however, show that the 400 impacts recorded have generally been lower than what would be seen in adult players, although some hits have been ranging higher than expected, Duma said.

Clark said none of the kids has had a concussion so far, although a couple of times players complained that their heads hurt and they were pulled out of practice.

“It was a hard hit, but each time they were back at practice the next day,” Clark said. “Ray put them through a concussion test, too.”

The work of Duma and his research team was even touted during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation looking into concussions and the marketing of sports equipment.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who sits on the committee, shared information on the development of a five-star rating system for adult football helmets that Duma released in the spring.

“I hope the star ratings may also help push manufacturers to come up with better designs,” Warner said in his official comments to the committee, adding that transparency helps consumers, players, coaches and trainers make better-informed decisions.

Daniel said he wants to gather enough data to be able to assign a star rating to youth helmets, but will need more data than from just one season.

Rating them right

Rating youth helmets is exactly what Chris Slusher wants to see.

Slusher is the athletic supervisor for the Montgomery County Parks and Recreation Department, a title that puts him in charge of purchasing all the safety equipment for the young athletes.

When it comes to football helmets, he says he doesn’t have much to go on when evaluating which brand and style is the best to purchase.

“Honestly, we’ve got a good Riddell sales rep, so that’s who we do business with,” Slusher said.

He also paid attention to the fact that an adult Riddell helmet received the highest star rating in the early Virginia Tech study. Despite the warning that the study wasn’t applicable to youth models, he decided that buying the youth version of the high-rated adult helmet couldn’t hurt.

“The thing I’m most interested in learning is are we buying the right helmets,” Slusher said. “This is one of the safety things that you hate to be cutting corners on.”

At about $100 a helmet, there is also a financial consideration.

Slusher said the department uses leftover money at the end of the fiscal year to buy new equipment for all sports. For football that means tossing the oldest helmets and buying a handful of new ones each year. Every two years, Riddell will recondition existing helmets, but again, Slusher said he has to trust that he is doing what is best for the county’s players without really having the evidence to prove it.

For football enthusiasts such as Clark, the fact that people are paying attention to the smallest players could help with his dream to improve safety at all levels of the sport.

As for parents, such as Hargrett, standing on the sidelines, they still worry, but they also want their children to have fun.

“I tried to talk him out of it,” Hargrett said about signing Decorien up to play. “He’s so little, I was nervous. †But I realize it’s probably hardest on me because he’s not scared of anything.

“He has hit some kids and left them on the ground that I just cringe,” she said with a wince followed by a smile.