Well, actually, we don’t know what the football helmet of the future is. Yet. But as the 2018 football season gets started, we do have some clues about the next generation of football helmets.
Before the start of the season, the NFL announced winners of its fourth “HeadHealthTECH Challenge” – an ongoing series of grants to universities and companies “designed to stimulate research and innovation in protective equipment” for players – in particular, better helmets.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first change in football helmets. In fact, in the early days of the game, there weren’t any helmets at all. Then, after a brief moment of glory (in the late 1800s) for the “head harness”, the first leather helmet arrived.
Durable, but not a lot of protection.
Even so, leather helmets were the ONLY helmets until the Second World War. And if you know your football history, you’ll know some of the greatest players ever – Jim Thorpe and the Galloping Ghost (Red Grange), Sid Luckman and (Slingin’) Sammy Baugh – wore the leather.
The next leap was the plastic helmet. And just about everything since has been tinkering with that: the addition of padding inside, and then more padding – first the single bar facemask, and then gradually more and more crossbars – newer types of padding – newer types of plastic – radio receivers (for the quarterback to get signals from the sidelines) – visors.
And THOSE helmets, in their various versions, take us from Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown, to Tom Brady and Antonio Brown.
But today, with a much higher level of concern about concussions, and long-term brain injuries – a new generation of helmets is coming. From the outside, the new helmets might look familiar to Johnny U, but inside, new materials (built from petrochemical-derived materials) and very high tech will make these helmets totally 21st century.
For example, there’s Corsair Innovations’ FEAM (Fiber Energy Absorbing Material, if you’re wondering) – a helmet insert that substantially reduces the impact of getting hit, especially from twisting motions (baseball umpires are already using this).
And Yobel Technologies, a start-up based on research done at Mississippi State, which is testing out a new, lightweight, impact-absorbing faceguard.
Those two projects are winners of this year’s HeadHealthTECH Challenge (which has given out more than $1.3 million in grants so far). Previous winners include:
Windpact, for an inside-the-helmet tech that is like “airbags” for your brain.
VyaTek for its Zorbz™ – which , like it sounds, “absorbs” up to 50 percent of the force of a hit (and which you can swap out for a new Zorbz™ afterward).
2nd Skull®, which is a (mostly) foam insert that you wear on your first skull – with a helmet, for football; without a helmet, for sports like rugby.
And that’s just some of what’s making its way from the lab to the field.
So what will the helmet of the future look like?
Well, no. Probably not like that. And not like Tony Stark’s headgear either.
But whatever they look like, the next generation of helmets is coming. And that new gear will make the game safer for NFL players, college players and even the youngest Galloping Ghosts-to-be. Which is also good news for fans of football, and parents of football players.