Even in today’s environment of less player-on-player contact, football practices have a distinct sound. Helmets eventually run into helmets and make the distinct crack of molded plastic on molded plastic. Often a harmless glancing blow in the interior line, the sound is still there, evidence of the sport’s internal collisions.
But not at Covenant in 2017.
With an entire varsity squad clad in Guardian Caps, a soft-shell helmet cover, practice at Covenant, even a preseason intrasquad practice with Fork Union that included some essentially live contact is quieter as instead of plastic on plastic, the soft padding crashes against plastic or other soft padding.
“It’s huge, first time I took a shot to the head in it, I could barely feel it, it was more like a slap,” said Covenant quarterback John Huemme in August.
That new sound, that soft thud instead of that distinctly different noise might just be the sound of progress.
When you read national headlines about football today, you see words like “crisis” and “under-siege.” There’s no question that, like a lot of sports, there are significant risks inherent to the game, risks that have led to documented cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) particularly in players that have played the game for many years, as well as concerns about the impact of concussions on brain health years after playing the game.
Much of that science, which primarily deals with players who’ve played long beyond high school, is valid, peer-reviewed, accepted truth, and that’s led a lot of programs, companies and organizations to start looking for answers to make playing the game safer. That’s what led Covenant athletic director Clark Walker to quickly return Guardian’s call when Tony Plagman, an acquaintance from high school who works for the company, reached out.
“This was an exciting opportunity to partner with Guardian and we just don’t know what the long term effects of injury because you can’t study them in depth until you get an autopsy,” Walker said. “We see Guardian is one step of many steps in the right direction.”
Walker, who has made fostering a culture of innovation a priority as the Eagles’ athletic director including making strides in video equipment and how teams use it, found institutional support immediately. Covenant headmaster George Sanker, who has a pair of sons, Jonas and Nic Sanker, who play for the Eagles was excited to pilot the Guardian caps at the school.
“Particularly related to football, there’s a lot of questions families have about the safety of their children,” Sanker said. “What we’re trying to do at Covenant is trying to make sure we’re taking every step possible to make sure we’re protecting our students well. We want to step into new ventures that we think will bear good fruit for us. We’re always searching for research out there and projects that we can partner on.”
The cap is intended to reduce acceleration forces by cushioning the impact, similar to how the soft wall at a NASCAR track reduces impact for a car versus hitting a hard shell helmet. Like anything with head injuries and technology that’s new, it’s going to take some time for research to be definitive as far as reduction. The idea was born out for research for a fully softshell helmet by a materials science company that concluded that a hard-soft combination was a better engineering model. That led to the idea of retro-fitting current helmets with the cover instead of trying to introduce an entirely new helmet. They also found a way to make it work with athletic department budgets.
“He figured out he could retro-fit every helmet on the market with a cover,” Plagman said. “He figured out a softshell, lightweight, low cost solution. That’s the goal. It’s an additional cost, so we try to keep it as low cost as possible.”
Walker brought the idea to first-year head coach Seth Wilson.
“My first thought is that I wanted to take a look at it online, I reached out to the company and they’ll send you all their reports on the cap,” Wilson said. “When you look at everything that cap says it can do, like reduce the G-Force impact, reduce the sound waves and reduce the interior heat of the helmet. I just wanted to try it out. The facts from those studies that they’ve done are pretty convincing themselves.”
Wilson fits the mold of innovation that Walker wants from his coaches. He was an early local proponent of the rugby tackling method that Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll helped popularize and has become common in the last few years. The Guardian Cap fit with Wilson’s desire to stay on the cutting edge and taking steps to protect players as much as he possibly can.
”I think that’s the whole goal, that you’re not necessarily sure what (the cap) has done because it has prevented a lot of things,” Wilson said. “It makes me more comfortable doing more live blocking or more thud. It also lets the parents and kids know that I’m doing everything in my power on safety. Building that trust goes a long way.”
Covenant is not the only school seeking out solutions to the head injury issue locally through Guardian, who has also equipped tons of other high schools and colleges like Clemson, who started using them with interior linemen, in the softshell cover. St. Anne’s-Belfield is using Guardian caps too in an effort to reduce impact. STAB also uses the Shadowman tackling dummy, which looks like a traditional tall tackling dummy sitting on top of an intertube with a harness attached. As a player runs, the shadowman follows at the same speed, allowing for safer but realistic tackling practice that cuts down on impacts.
“We’re doing a lot of stuff with the Shadowman and we’ve got the Guardian caps — I think every coach in America has received something from these folks,” Blake said. “Putting something else on their heads is kind of a no-brainer. Especially for the linemen, anything to stop actual blows to the head or blows with the ground.”
Blake is a particular fan of the Shadowman precisely because of that full speed element.
“Anything we can do full speed and not kill each other has got to help get us better,” Blake said. “When we have such low numbers, you can’t pound them all the time and it’s huge.”
That’s an important motivator for schools like Covenant and STAB that have traditionally had smaller rosters and are feeling some of the participation squeeze as potential players opt out or choose other sports. Protecting players becomes an even more urgent priority than it already is when there are fewer of them.
But in the end, using the Guardian Cap is about a process, a process to make football safer at every level. To ensure that future generations get a chance to play and stay protected when they do.
“They’re another piece of the puzzle,” Walker said.
One more piece to the complicated puzzle of making football safer that’s still coming together.