VA. Tech at the forefront of football helmet safety

Oct. 22, 2012 – BLACKSBURG —

Being protected by state-of-the-art equipment — from shoulder pads to helmets — can be empowering for college football players.

With the right gear, “you just go out there and play ball,” Virginia Tech sophomore safety Kyshoen Jarrett said. “I guess the safety of the helmets and stuff like that helps us not worry as much.”

Jarrett may not be thinking about concussions while he’s playing and practicing, but Virginia Tech’s training staff certainly is. During each Hokie game or practice session, about 25 players wear helmets outfitted with sensors to measure the impact of hits to their heads. It’s all part of the research of Dr. Stefan Duma, the department head of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, who last year released the first independent ratings for football helmets.

Duma’s study put each helmet through 120 impacts at varying forces and spots. The amount of head acceleration was measured and recorded, and the helmets that did the best job of reducing acceleration received the highest ratings.

The idea for the ratings system came from a question posed to Duma by the Tech football program.

“Several years ago, they asked us, ‘Hey, what helmets should we buy?’ ” he recalled. “There was no data out there to grade helmets.”

Duma said there are two main factors that affect how well a helmet protects. The first is the design of the outer shell, and the second is the use of padding inside the helmet.

His study gave three helmets the highest possible rating of five stars: the Riddell Revolution Speed, the Rawlings Quantum Plus and the Riddell 360.

Seven helmets earned a four-star designation: the Schutt ION 4D, Schutt DNA Pro +, Rawlings Impulse, Xenith X1, Riddell Revolution, Rawlings Quantum and Riddell Revolution IQ.

Duma said any helmet with a four-star rating or higher is recommended for use by college football players.

Through the research, “we were able to get players out of the older, poor-performing helmets and into the new helmets,” he said. “Our rating system provided the impetus for that to happen.”

Most other research on the effectiveness of helmets had been performed by or paid for by companies making the helmets, Duma said. “We were the first ones that provided independent data,” he said. “We’re not aligned with any manufacturer.”

And Duma said his research showed it isn’t about money. “There was no correlation between performance and cost.”

Virginia Tech wears the five-star Riddell Revolution Speed, a change from the Riddell VSR-4, which received just a one-star rating a year ago and now is off the market.

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Duma’s research continues each time the Hokies take the field.

Virginia Tech assistant athletic trainer Brett Griesemer said the training staff outfits the helmets of mostly starters, along with some key backups and special-teams players.

“At the beginning of the season, we try to target guys that are getting the most contact in the season,” Griesemer said.

Offensive and defensive linemen’s sensors record the highest number of hits, he said, while skill position players, like wide receivers and running backs, absorb fewer hits but more forceful impacts.

The helmets are fitted with U-shaped rings that have six sensors on them to measure head acceleration during impacts. The sensors transmit their data to a laptop with an antenna that Griesemer sets up and monitors during practices and games.

The system also notifies the training staff by pager.

“We can be alerted if anybody takes a big hit,” Griesemer said. “We’re not really blindsided by anything.”

Tech head trainer Mike Goforth stressed that the impact measurement isn’t the final word on concussion diagnostics. Players can take seemingly minor hits and suffer concussions and sustain major blows and be uninjured.

“That’s just one part of the puzzle,” Goforth said. “The data we get from our research just tells us, ‘Hey, a concussion may have occurred. You need to check that person out.’ If the clinical examination reveals a concussion, then we pull them.” (804) 980-6188 @RTD_MikeBarber