Rosemont-based Riddell seeks to build a safer football helmet – Chicago Magazine



“People would prefer the magic bullet – a concussion helmet,” says Ide. “But I don’t see that on the horizon anytime soon.”

OEvery time Thad Ide sees two massive football players collide, helmet-to-helmet or shoulder-to-helmet, he begins to calculate – not the yardage gained or lost on the game, but the amount of force applied to the players head. .

How fast were the bodies moving at the time of impact? If they exceeded 17.5 miles per hour, Ide knows, the collision most likely caused a concussion.

Ide is Senior Vice President of Research and Product Development at Riddell, the Rosemont-based company where he has devoted most of his professional life to one thing: creating a safer football helmet.

Head injuries in athletes have become a matter of deep concern in recent years. A 2000 study of former NFL players found that 60% had suffered at least one concussion, and those who did were more likely to report memory and concentration problems, speech disorders and headaches. Another study in 2007 found that 20% of players who suffered three or more concussions suffered from depression. Football players, according to yet another study, are much more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than the rest of the population.

Earlier this year, former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, 50, a father of four and one of the smartest men to ever play for the team, shot himself in the chest. Prior to his suicide, he complained to his ex-wife of blurred vision, memory loss and pain on the left side of his head. Duerson left a suicide note saying, “Please ensure my brain is donated to the NFL Brain Bank.” That bank, Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, confirmed Duerson’s suspicions that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease associated with dementia and depression.

Americans revere football players for their great strength and bravery. We stand and cheer as they kick each other insane and return to the field. Yet we know now, even as we cheer, that many of these young men are doomed to horrific fates. The scientific studies are conclusive. The balance sheet is getting heavier.

Is it inevitable?

More than a hundred years ago, after a series of brutal injuries to football players, President Theodore Roosevelt called for a summit at the White House. Soon after, a group of 13 prominent university leaders nearly banned the game. Instead, they changed some rules in an effort to reduce injuries. The changes proved useful and play resumed.

Today, the NFL is taking action to reduce the risk of head injuries, instituting rule changes that include stiff penalties for players who launch themselves headfirst into vulnerable opponents. But the dangers cannot be eliminated. Modern players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever, which means they collide with a much greater force. The only way to completely avoid the damage would be to remove all the impact – to have the pros play flag football. But that won’t happen. Take away the violence, and football is not football. In other words, the problem does not go away.

That’s where Riddell’s Thad Ide and others doing similar work come in.

* * *

Riddell has been in the Chicago area since 1929, when John T. Riddell, an Evanston High School football coach, started a company to make shoes with removable cleats. Helmets came later. Today, approximately 75% of all NFL players wear Riddell helmets. The company is owned by California-based Easton-Bell Sports, but retains its headquarters in Rosemont.

Ide works in some nondescript office building near O’Hare. The bland surroundings seem to suit Ide, a soft-spoken Michigan State engineering graduate who has spent his entire career working on helmet design. As he welcomes me to his lab, passing lockers of unmarked football helmets and large machines that look like torture devices or high-tech gym equipment, he immediately gets to work reducing my expectations.

“People would prefer the magic bullet – a concussion helmet,” says Ide. “But I don’t see that on the horizon anytime soon. The technology does not exist. »

And it may never exist.

The best way to reduce head injuries in football is to get players to stop using their heads when blocking and tackling, he says. Offensive linemen, for example, start every game crouched down, their helmets pointed at their opponents. But players who try to tackle with their arms to one side won’t last long in the NFL – ball carriers will run to the other side or through them. Staying centered is the only way to bring down a big man charging hard – and staying centered means keeping your head in the game.

Ide hands me a human head, a head made of composite materials that simulate everything from flesh to skull to sinus cavities. It weighs 12 pounds. He puts a helmet on it and loads it on a machine. A lab technician presses a button and the machine drops the head 60 inches onto a steel anvil. A numeric readout indicates the measured impact 379 on the Severity Index, a strength algorithm used to measure the likelihood of injury. Industry standards state that injuries are likely to occur at 1,200 on the severity index.

“It’s very rare to find a steel anvil on a football pitch,” says Ide, in his only attempt at humor of the day. The Point: This is worse than any collision a player might have in a game. The helmet did its job.

He goes to another machine. This simulates the impact of two football helmets colliding at a speed of approximately 17.5 miles per hour. Analysis of NFL movies tells him that 17.5 miles per hour is the average speed at which concussions occur. The sound of the collision sounds like a gunshot, but the impact only registers 432.

Ide’s job is to bring those numbers down, bit by bit, by making changes to the helmet’s design.

“It’s kind of an arms race for protection,” says Riddell chairman Dan Arment. “Competition forces us to improve, to ask ourselves if we are putting as much protective equipment as possible on the field.

Former NFL players recently sued the NFL and Riddell, claiming the dangers of concussions had been hidden for decades. Riddell declines to comment on pending litigation. Arment says the company is committed to safety and making safer helmets is good business.

A few years ago, Riddell sent their best new helmet, the 360, to a lab in Canada. They asked the lab technicians to tell them exactly how the force of the frontal impact was transferred from the helmet to the player’s head. The answer: Most of it traveled through the latch that attached the face shield to the one-piece plastic shell. This latch was located at the top of the facemask, roughly level with the player’s forehead. Suddenly it seemed obvious. If the facemask was attached to the sides of the helmet rather than the top, much of the force would be released from the player’s head.

It took a while to get it right, but the new design worked and greatly reduced the impact of frontal hits. You’ll see NFL and NCAA players wearing the new helmets this season.

“A lot of really good ideas seem obvious after you hear them,” says Ide.

* * *

But is it enough? No. In fact, there is a terrible irony in all of this. The more the athletes feel protected, the more likely they are to throw themselves headlong into their opponents. Even though equipment manufacturers can make helmets that greatly lessen the impact of each blow, there remains the problem of damage caused by many seemingly harmless small collisions. A football player absorbs thousands of minor but jarring blows over the course of a season, each shaking his brain from side to side and weakening the connections between nerve cells.

This is why some teams have reduced full contact practices. That’s why the NFL moved the line for kickoffs this season, after recognizing that kickoff returns lead to a disproportionate number of head injuries.

But Ide would like to see the teams take it to another level. Already, thousands of college players are wearing helmets with sensors that transmit data to the sidelines, signaling the impact of each hit on their head. Some colleges are using the data to study the effects of football-related head injuries.

It is therefore possible that secondary monitors can keep an eye on each player. The NFL could set standards: a player would only be allowed to absorb a certain amount of impact in a game or over the course of a season. If a player crosses any of these thresholds – and Ide doesn’t yet know how these thresholds would be set – they must be benched. Just as baseball coaches and spectators monitor pitch counts, football coaches and fans monitor headshots and their severity. TV commentators would inform fans with easy-to-read graphics.

The idea has a lot to recommend. Imagine if the Bears were faced with the prospect of finishing the fourth quarter of a close game — or ending the season — without Brian Urlacher. You can bet Urlacher would learn to play the game differently, avoiding head-first collisions as much as possible. And you can bet the Bears coaches would go out of their way to protect him, too.

If playing the game safer is inexorably linked to winning, we could see real progress.

This is what Ide roots for. He’s a fan of the game. He enjoys watching and does his best to push science out of his mind when the TV is on. Yet he recoils – “as much as everyone, I think” – when he sees giddy players.

I ask him if he would ever let his own children play football.

He has two little girls, he told me.

What if they wanted to play? What if he had boys?

He pauses briefly before saying, “I think I’d be okay with that. I wouldn’t start them at tackle as early as a lot of people do. But I think the research is going in the right direction.

Photography: Katrina Wittkamp

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