A safer helmet has made NFL's starting lineup. Seattle-based startup Vicis has been working since its 2013 founding to design a football helmet that better protects players from concussions. The company has taken a radical approach: Its first iteration, the Zero1, has a flexible outer shell that bends upon impact. That means those loud, helmet-to-helmet pops will become softer sounding thuds--although the hits will be just as hard.

This spring, the Zero1 finished first in an NFL-sanctioned safety test of 33 helmets--a field that consisted mostly of Riddell and Schutt, two incumbents that own 90 percent of the U.S. market. NFL teams have taken notice, with most of the league's 32 squads agreeing to make the helmets available to their athletes. Individual players decide which helmets to wear.

Now, for the first time, players have strapped on the helmets during NFL play. Wednesday night, about a half dozen Houston Texans wore Vicis's helmet during the team's first preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. That group included All-Pro linebacker Brian Cushing, running back Lamar Miller, safety Andre Hal, and defensive end and former No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney.

Underneath its soft surface, the Zero1 features a series of plastic columns that flex on impact, absorbing energy before it reaches the head. A hard shell below that protects the skull from direct blows. Vicis hopes the helmet can help reduce the number of on-field head injuries such as concussions.

There's more to protect than craniums. The NFL's 32 franchises are valued at some $75 billion, and the future of football itself has been called in question in recent years as new information becomes available about the long-term effects of concussion-causing hits to the brain. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July revealed that 110 out of 111 donated brains of dead former NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that causes mood swings, violence, depression, and suicidal behavior. The discovery of the disease by Dr. Bennett Omalu, and the NFL's attempts to discredit his work, were portrayed in the 2015 movie Concussion.

In July, 22-year-old Giants rookie Jadar Johnson announced his retirement due to health concerns. He was the latest in a string of players in recent years to hang up their uniforms while still in their prime. In 2015, 49ers standout linebacker Chris Borland stepped away from the game after just one season. "I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," he told ESPN that year. "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

Last year, Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe retired at 29. "Has the damage to my brain already been done?" he wrote at the time. "Do I have CTE? I hope I don't, but over 90% of the brains of former NFL players that have been examined showed signs of the disease. I am terrified."

Of course, not every player is concerned, with some wearing their injuries like a badge of honor. Earlier this month, Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams was asked by a fan during an open forum if he feared head injuries given the results of the recent study. "We live and breathe [football], and this is what we're so passionate about. Literally, I would--if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field," he said, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sitting by his side.

Still, Vicis continues to work on getting its helmets onto the heads of more NFL athletes, as well as players in the NCAA, where several dozen schools have ordered shipments. The company is continuing to refine the Zero1, which currently sells for $1,500, and plans to make helmets geared toward youth and high school players. It also intends to make helmets for other sports, such as hockey and lacrosse.

Co-founder and CEO Dave Marver says his team is excited to see the helmet get into real NFL action, but the startup knows its work isn't done. "We're too busy serving NFL and NCAA players this season, while working hard to make our technology available to younger football players and boys and girls playing other sports as soon as possible."

Vicis is the brainchild of Sam Browd, a University of Washington neurosurgeon. He co-founded the company along with Marver and Per Reinhall, a mechanical engineer at the university.

The company currently has 60 employees and has pulled in nearly $30 million in funding, primarily from spine surgeons, neurosurgeons, and current and former athletes. Hometown Seahawks stars Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin are both on the company's advisory team, as is Chiefs quarteback Alex Smith. All have been spotted wearing the Zero1 during practices in recent months.

Published on: Aug 15, 2017