There was a noteworthy football debut that took place during the NFL's opening week. It could be seen as Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith led his team to an upset over New England, as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson sat in the pocket against Green Bay and as Dallas running back Alfred Morris took a handoff from Dak Prescott on Sunday night.
All three players were wearing a new high-tech helmet, available for the first time this season, that league officials hope provides a preview of how technology and innovation could help make the game safer.
Smith, Wilson and Morris were among 70 or so players who wore the VICIS Zero1 helmet, the product of a Seattle start-up that might look like the traditional football helmet from afar but has a completely different design just beneath its exterior shell.
The helmet incorporates engineering principles more commonly seen in the automotive field. The outer shell is softer and more pliable, made from flexible thermoplastic. Beneath it is a layer of more than 500 small columns, each measuring an inch or so long, which absorb force and also twist and move laterally, lessening the impact of rotational acceleration, a major concussion culprit.
"Think of the current helmets like old cars, all made of steel," said Dave Marver, the VICIS CEO. "They get in a collision and they're rigid. The passenger continues to move forward. Today's cars, though, have bumpers that crumple, that slow acceleration before they reach the passenger compartment."
The VICIS Zero1 was the top-performing helmet in the NFL's Helmet Laboratory Testing Performance Results, faring better than 32 other counterparts when tested for head impact severity. Though not yet available for youth or high school players, it's being used this season for the first time on NFL and college fields.
Professional players have the option of wearing the helmet of their choice from a list of those approved by the NFL. There's a poster that hangs in every NFL facility showing that VICIS finished first in the independent testing. While nearly all of the NFL clubs have VICIS available to them, only players from about half the teams wore the new helmet during their Week 1 games. Teams like Seattle, Houston and Kansas City each had a handful of players take the field in the Zero1. Others, like the Washington Redskins, didn't have any. The helmet is also being used this season by players on 20 or so college teams, including Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida State and Texas A&M.
For a league that's been addressing concussion dangers and concerns to varying degrees for much of the past decade, the introduction of VICIS to the playing field marks an important step forward. While some of the NFL's most high-profile safety measures can be seen in the rule changes, league officials feel equipment and technology can play a bigger role.
"I think it's also fair to say that this helmet is probably the first of what will be many innovations in this space," said Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president in charge of health and safety, "as the engineering, design, manufacturing community gets more and more resources, data and tools."
Like other manufacturers, VICIS is careful not to make any claims that its helmet prevents concussions. Instead, the company says the product's design reduces the severity of impacts the head and brain experience in collisions.
"We will have players in the Zero1 get a concussion, almost certainly," Marver said. "We're hopeful the likelihood is lower, though, because we're reducing those impact forces."
Marver's company has already started studying other possible applications. Marver was in Washington last week for meetings on Capitol Hill. The company has been working on prototypes of a military combat helmet that incorporates many of the same engineering principles as its football helmet, and Marver was meeting with lawmakers and legislative aides to discuss the possibilities.
The current version of the company's football helmet retails for $1,500, six times more than competitors that also performed well in the NFL's tests. VICIS plans to eventually make versions of the helmet more accessible at lower price points. Marver says he hopes to test the helmet with younger and lighter football players in 2018 and then hit the market in 2019.
"Look, we were founded in part by a pediatric neurosurgeon. We didn't get into this to help 2,000 pro players, even though we want to do that," he said. "We want to help 4 million kids. That's what motivates us."
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