Is padded helmet cover answer to football concussions?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Steve Walsh doesn’t recall suffering a concussion in two years as the University of Miami’s starting quarterback and an 11-year NFL career.

At least, not a concussion according to the standards at the time.

“Not really. Nothing major,” Walsh said this week. “Had my bell rung, which is now called a concussion.”

Escaping his playing career with no significant head injuries hasn’t stopped Walsh, head coach at Cardinal Newman High School, from trying to prevent future brain trauma among his players. The Crusaders began wearing Guardian Caps, soft-shell canvas covers that wrap around the outer part of the helmet, during practices last season.

“There’s no product that can completely eliminate the possibility or probability of a concussion,” Walsh said while sitting in his office before an afternoon workout. “When the head is jolted at that force or torque, the brain’s going to move and that’s going to cause concussions.

“The Guardian Cap is a relatively inexpensive device that adds another level of protection, security. So we made the decision to be proactive and purchase the product.”

Players at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla., also wear caps at a time when head injuries in football have become a hot topic. Nearly 18,000 players at the youth, high school and college levels combined are using the product.

“If you’re not wearing one and you’re going against a kid who is wearing one, it still helps,” Cypress Bay coach Mark Guandolo said. “You still have to teach the kids the proper way to block and tackle, but I feel much safer with the kids wearing them.”
Makers of the Guardian Cap, developed in 2010, say it reduces the impact of hits by 33 percent. It attaches to the helmet with four elastic straps through the facemask. 

“We had a group of doctors from Colorado that came to us an said, ‘We think there’s a better way of getting into (lessening football-related head trauma),'” Guardian Cap co-founder Lee Hanson said via phone from Atlanta. “We sat down and started talking to them about designs, collaborated together… with neurosurgeons and all kinds of doctors… that’s how we came up with it.”

Not everyone is sold on the Guardian Cap. For example, the Colorado High School Activities Association has encouraged schools not to use it because the product has yet to be approved by the National Operating Committee for Standards in Athletic Equipment.

NOCSAE posted a statement on its website explaining that add-on items, such as the Guardian Cap, change the helmet model under its standards.

However, NOCSAE executive director and general counsel Mike Oliver told FOX Sports Florida that his organization does not certify products. It sets standards for the helmet but not for add-ons such as the Guardian Cap .

“The statement was not intended to comment on an add-on product,” Oliver said.

The Florida High School Association posted NOCSAE’s statement on its website.

“We stand by what NOCSAE said but we don’t say yay or nay to the product,” Justin Harrison, FHSA assistant executive director for athletic services, told FOX Sports Florida on Thursday.

Hanson has a message to people critical or uncertain about the Guardian Cap.

“NOCSAE is not a safety organization — the ‘S’ stands for ‘standards,’ not ‘safety,'” Hanson said Thursday. “NOCSAE sets manufacturing standards for helmets, facemasks and catching gloves. The helmet standards were set in 1973 — it’s time to update them.”

Hanson added the Guardian Cap is four times better than the NOCSAE helmet standards.

The product’s current configuration is meant to be used in practice; attaching logos and in-game use would need a more advanced version.

“We have thought about that, but initially, we knew it was going to be such a paradigm shift to try to get these things out there, that we promoted this as a practice cap,” said Hanson, who added his company has designed the next generation of in-game Guardian Caps.

“All the studies are out there, the majority of hits to the head happen during practice.”

Former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso began wearing an extra outer shell called the ProCap in 1989 after being told he risked death following two severe concussions. He insists products such as Guardian Caps are a necessity.

“Fifth-grade physics says that in order to reduce force you either have to reduce the mass or the acceleration,” Kelso said on the phone from the Buffalo area. “Players, in fact, are not getting smaller, so the mass is getting bigger.

“The fields aren’t getting smaller either because they’re putting in all this synthetic surfaces, so the speed is greater. The only way to mitigate or reduce the forces that have the potential to cause the injury is to slow down the acceleration forces and that’s what this technology attempts to do.”

Kelso commends helmet companies for improvements over the years. But …
 
“The fact of the matter is, by their own admission, the helmet originally was manufactured to prevent skull fractures — it does that very well — but it was never built with the attention of mitigating the rotational forces that happen and can cause concussions,” Kelso said.

“They don’t put hard bumpers on cars anymore because when they have a softer surface it slows down the acceleration forces and creates less force in the car and less force in the passenger or driver area of the car.”

Miami coach Al Golden said he was familiar with the Guardian Cap, but has not used them with the Hurricanes.

“We’ve looked into everything,” Golden said before a recent practice. “It just comes down to what’s manageable, what fits your organization, what’s practical and obviously, at the end of the day, we’ve structured our whole camp to be safe — what do we need?

“Maybe there are still coaches out there hitting for three hours and all that. They need (the Guardian Caps).”

Walsh said he became aware of the Guardian Cap at a coaches’ convention and admitted he had initial worries about the headgear.

“My concern was the possibility of neck injury,”  Walsh said. “A lot NFL teams kind of shied away from (the Pro Cap) because there was an additional adhesion to that, that they felt could trickle to the neck and cause neck injuries.”

While researching the product, Walsh learned the Guardian Cap is made to stay in place but not locked in like the ProCap, so it has some give to it.

Not only has he purchased Guardian Caps for the Cardinal Newman varsity team, Walsh said he recently heard from a Miami Dolphins trainer asking for information on the product.

A Dolphins spokesperson said the team did not want to comment on the Guardian Cap because its staff didn’t “know enough about the product to discuss it properly.”

Cardinal Newman senior safety Collin Grill, who suffered a concussion two years ago, said he thinks the Guardian Cap has had a positive effect.

“I think it does,” Gill said. “The year I got my concussion, we had a lot of concussions. The year before that, we had a bunch. Now, we hardly have any.

“It was kind of goofy looking off the bat, and kids didn’t want to wear it because it wasn’t cool, but you really don’t feel much with it on. I feel like it helps a lot, honestly.”

Walsh agrees.

“I’ve been happy with the product,” he said. “The kids are comfortable. They’re used to way it feels and looks. We’re going to stick with it.”

Charlie McCarthy can be reached at mac1763@bellsouth.net

or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas