Here's a question for you: What was the last innovation in football helmets? If you can't come up with an answer, you realize part of the problem. Yes, there have been improvements -- better padding, weight reduction, and such -- but little in the way of true innovation.
It took an outsider to even try. Simpson-Ganassi Helmets is located a few miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in a non-descript warehouse along with a number of other racing outfits. If you're a racing fan, especially IndyCar, those names will be instantly familiar to you. Bill Simpson is a long-time innovator in racing equipment, known as the "Godfather of Safety," while Chip Ganassi owns racing teams that have won at Indy and Daytona. Together, they've set up a company to apply Simpson's years of experience in racing equipment to the modern football helmet.
The inspiration for the product came in 2010. Simpson watched as Austin Collie was laying on the field unconscious after a second concussion. Simpson's friend, Tom Moore, had been the offensive coordinator for the Colts from 1998-2009 and Simpson asked him why so many players were being carted off. Moore's answer didn't satisfy Simpson, sending him back to his factory.
Simpson worked with Collie and others, including All-Pro Jeff Saturday, during the offseason and by 2011 had a working design. Getting hard figures and names is difficult -- "I don't want to get into the politics," Simpson says -- but estimating that around 20 players wore the helmet for the bulk of last year is "fair." Some wore it all season, while others like Troy Polamalu did not wear it in games. One fact is clear -- not one of the players that wore Simpson's helmets suffered a concussion.
It wasn't entirely successful. Simpson helmets were off many of those players by the end of the season, with complaints about the padding getting "soggy and smelly" being heard. Even Collie switched back to his previous helmet. When he suffered another concussion this preseason, he wasn't wearing a Simpson.
But the problem with those complaints is that there's actually no padding, as most think of it. Heavy? No, the new helmet is lighter. I brought a top-of-the-line helmet to the warehouse for comparison, and the Simpson helmet feels about half as heavy.
With the 2012 NFL season just around the corner, I was given an exclusive look inside the Simpson-Ganassi operation. Tucked back in amongst grey concrete warehouses and racing operations, SGH (Simpson-Ganassi Helmets) wouldn't catch the eye of anyone not looking for it. Guarded by a cat named Helmet, Simpson's factory is laid out with prototypes, parts and pieces. "The hardest part are the little things," Simpson explained, talking about the difficulty in getting simple parts like rivets, pads and the right kind of Velcro. "I've got a kind now that you can't pull off with pliers," Simpson says gleefully.
Getting information about the helmet from Simpson is one part science lesson and one part pulling teeth. Simpson at times seems like he wants to evangelize; he truly believes that he's built a better helmet, one that will make an impact on the concussion issue. At others, his irascible nature comes out as he explains what to him seems simple. Carbon fiber, kevlar and other exotic materials are all part of his helmet, but together, it's deceptively simple. It looks like a football helmet, so it should have none of the issues that the oversized new baseball helmets had getting adopted. The advanced outer shell can be painted. The facemask -- "I'm not happy with what we have" -- is a standard appearing design.
It's only when the helmet is put on that the differences become clear. It doesn't fit or feel like a normal helmet. Instead of being grabbed by lots of tiny pads, the head slides into a large single piece of ... well, something that I can't tell you about. That inner padding is just one of five patents that SGH has pending. I can tell you that the padding material is completely different and has a more progressive spring to it than air or foam. Tests performed by Simpson show that his helmet gives a much more progressive cushioning in tests that exceed the NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards of Athletic Equipment) standard. Pointing to a chart where the impact gives an initial spike over the 100 G mark for a competitor's helmet, Simpson says "that's a concussion."
Drop tests and closer looks are all well and good, but I'm never satisfied with simple. I slipped one of the pro helmets onto my head and said "let's test this thing." While Simpson wouldn't allow me to film it and questioned my sanity, I had an SGH employee hit me at the crown of the helmet, one of the weakest spots in current helmets. The employee came away with a sore hand while I barely felt the impact. I had no mouthpiece in, but almost no discernible force made it from the point of contact down to my jaw.
Dustin Fink, the Athletic Trainer behind The Concussion Blog, which has become the go-to source for concussion data and discussion, hasn't been able to see the SGH helmet first-hand, but I filled him in on what I had seen without divulging any secrets. Fink likes the concept. "It's unique and exciting. There haven't been many advances beyond the standard padding we see now. Anything new that could revolutionize the helmet market is great."
Bill Simpson has seemingly built a better mousetrap. His helmet design, one that took him 18 months of long hours to get here -- "My girlfriend's not happy about this. She thought I was retired." -- is nearing the make or break point. It has to go from a shelf in his factory to the heads of football players (it officially goes on sale some time around October 1). It would be easy to sell this technology to one of the existing manufacturers or to slap a swoosh on it and get access to hundreds of players instead of relying on word of mouth. Simpson's gone that route before, selling two racing companies for millions.
But he still has ideas. The helmet as designed is the fifth generation. He wants to make some changes to the appearance, so that it's more identifiable. His challenge now is to ramp up production and get them on to players' heads. Those who have worn the helmet are already believers.
Big name players such as Saturday and Polamalu have worn the helmet, but it's Tyler Horn, a rookie lineman for the Atlanta Falcons, who has become its most vocal proponent. Horn's fiancee learned about the helmet and implored him to try it. "It's amazing," Horn told me. "It's so light that you don't get neck cramps the first couple days of camp. I've had some big hits in camp, but when I'm walking off the field at the end of the day, I don't even have a headache." Those headaches, something Saturday has mentioned, are likely sign of sub-concussive impacts of the type that especially affect linemen. Horn says players at camp are interested in his high-tech helmet. "Every day, someone new will ask me about it. They can't believe there's no air in it or how light it is." No one has switched yet, but he thinks he's just the first of many who will be wearing it as soon as next year.
Horn is right. The ultimate test for the new helmet isn't going to be done in a lab. It's going to be whether this helmet will get out to players and reduce the numbers and severity of concussions. Simpson knows that there's no way to get to zero, but he thinks the work he's put into this helmet is making progress. With NFL players like Horn and Saturday, we'll see soon whether players around football snap up this better mousetrap.