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Concussion series, part 2: Football helmet manufacturers trying new ideas

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Follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blakesebring and at his blog, www.tailingthekomets.com.

Could different head protection make a difference?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - 5:55 pm

Second in a series of three

There's a reason every football helmet includes a label warning prospective users about the potential for neck and brain injuries up to and including death.

One manufacturer's label even says, "To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football."

The manufacturers know athletes running and playing an impact sport are going to suffer concussions as a normal part of growing up. The goal is to try to limit them.

"All the helmets that are on the market now were designed to prevent skull fractures, not concussions," said former Indianapolis Cathedral coach and SG Helmets salesperson Jim O'Hara. "No helmet is going to totally prevent a concussion because you can get hit in the shoulder and have a concussion. You have to prevent the brain from moving around after taking a blow."

Potentially concussion-reducing helmets are a growing industry in football. There are several companies to choose from, including SG Helmets in Brownsburg. The SG stands for auto racing specialists Bill Simpson and Chip Ganassi, who are using what they have learned protecting athletes in one sport to hopefully help those in another.

"Our helmet can absorb and dissipate energy over an entire area," O'Hara said. "Other helmets, the energy has nowhere to go because plastic doesn't absorb anything, and it has limited padding."

Because of a Kevlar carbon shell and a one-piece inside padding, SG Helmets weigh 2.6 pounds compared with 4.5 pounds for a regular helmet. They fit tight to the head to potentially spread the impact and prevent the head from knocking around inside the helmet.

They also cost approximately $400, about twice as much as a regular helmet.

With guidance from Heritage coach Dean Lehrman, the parents of senior Jake Bosler bought him one before this season. Bosler believes he has experienced five concussions, the last two years ago during his sophomore season. He sat in the stands last year but desperately wanted to come back for his senior season.

"I understand that I'm not going to be going to college to play football," said Bosler, who wants to study aeronautical engineering at Purdue. "I have to be capable of going to college to learn and get an education. I can't get a concussion. That's risking a lot, and I have to know when it's time to be done."

Finding the SG Helmet helped persuade Bosler he could play again this year. The helmet is slightly larger than a regular football helmet and resembles a race-car helmet with its longer crown.

Several Fort Wayne-area players are using the SG Helmet this season. Bishop Dwenger freshman Eddie Dahm knows this will be his helmet for the rest of his football career.

"There's nothing that is going to eliminate that risk, so it's what you can do to minimize it," his father, Bert, said. "Who wouldn't want to minimize that issue? It's about where you put your money, because the science is not definitive. There's not a lot of data out there, but this helmet seemed to make the most sense. It just made sense to us that this helmet design was an improvement."

Because the helmet is lighter and fits tightly, not every player likes it. O'Hara estimated 500 Indiana high school players are using SG Helmets this season.

Schools have already been buying more football helmets lately. A new ruling from manufacturers three years ago meant any helmet older than 10 years could not be used. That meant Snider had to purchase 70 helmets. Because of a lot of head and shoulder injuries, Bishop Dwenger recently held a two-year fundraiser to purchase 70 new helmets and 50 shoulder pads.

Football helmets can be the most expensive item in an athletic director's budget. Most schools purchase 10 to 12 helmets each year, rotating out the oldest ones.

"All you can do is prioritize your money with the kids' safety first," Leo Athletic Director Brock Rohrbacher said. "If it means you do without uniforms or fertilizer, you have to spend the money on football gear and baseball and softball with catchers' gear. Once you do everything you can to keep a kid safe, then you spend the money where you need it."

Many schools purchase a variety of helmets because kids have different head sizes, and one size does not fit all.

Each helmet must also be recertified each summer by the manufacturer for use the next season, which can cost between $20 and $40 per helmet to check every facet. Depending on the number of players, that can cost a school around $3,000.

"We know every year we are going to have a big expense for reconditioning," Concordia Lutheran Athletic Director and former football coach Dean Doerffler said. "You plan for that, and you know you're going to have that kind of expense."

The schools also don't have any choice but to pay it.

The cost of helmets, especially concussion-reducing helmets, is a hot topic among schools and coaches. Snider coach Kurt Tippmann is on the board of the state football coaches association.

"We've been approached by several people who claim they have the new helmet that's going to prevent concussions," Tippmann said. "We've been in close discussions with our doctors and trainers, and they don't believe there's a helmet out there that's going to reduce concussions. The Simpson-Ganassi helmet is the one that sounds the best, but until the people with the medical knowledge say it might be a good investment ... I get a weird feeling there's somebody trying to make a buck, and concussions are in the limelight right now."

Thursday in part 3: A renowned local doctor talks about concussion treatment.