Concussions: Avoidance, Protection and Better Helmets

Justin Landers, head athletic trainer at Katy High School, leads me to a secret stash of football equipment. The attic-like room, which is only accessible by one skinny wood ladder, is floor to ceiling and wall to wall with hundreds of helmets and shoulder pads.

Landers combs through the well-organized racks of white helmets and pulls out several that were worn by Tiger players in the 1980s and 1990s. Later in a downstairs meeting room, Landers, the son of a helmet salesman, lays out these antiquated brain protectors alongside the just-received Riddell Revolution Speed headgear. The differences are noticeable by look and -- after trying on several -- feel.

I'm here as part of my research for this week's feature "Knocked Out," in which fellow Village Voice Media reporter Gus Garcia-Roberts from Miami and I looked at the effect of concussions on young athletes.

Though I'm no former All-Pro, I did play tackle football from age eight to 17, and I can still remember all of those helmets that never seemed to fit quite right. When a cutting-edge model arrived at my high school in 1993, the snugness still wasn't there, even though the interior foam and vinyl pads could be customized with air to contour the head.

Standing here at Katy High with a Riddell Revolution Speed helmet on my dome, I feel like I'm sporting the head-protection equivalent of a Bentley. To me, the most impressive feature is that the side jaw pads can also be inflated with an air pump, which can further prevent brain bouncing. In my estimation, the only way this helmet is going to disengage is if linebacker Ray Lewis barrels me into the goal posts at full speed.

Another surprise is its mass. You might think that these new designs wouldn't be as heavy, but this helmet seems to weigh as much as those old-school ones. Landers later explains that though there's not as much hard plastic polycarbonate materials on the outer shell (which means that less blunt force is sustained during a helmet-to-helmet collision), the weight is basically the same, due to the additional interior padding.

Landers says that about ten years ago, approximately 11 Katy High football players sustained concussions one season. With the latest helmet technologies of the past half-decade, which includes the Riddell Revolution, concussion cases have declined to three to four cases per Katy football season, according to Landers.

Dr. William Jones, a staff physician at Houston's Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine Institute, explains that head trauma in sports can be sustained two different ways. One is through linear movement, where the brain travels in one direct back-and-forth path. The other is rotational, where the brain can be "sheared by a spinning force," he says.

According to Jones, every type of helmet is inadequate for the latter case. This may include an athlete who has been blindsided, much like an automobile occupant who sustains severe whiplash during a side-impact car accident.

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