You've seen and heard the thunderous collisions that characterize football. The lifelong effects of concussions caused by the hundreds of head hits each player takes during a season are now tragically apparent. In a recent study published in JAMA, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is linked to mood swings, memory loss, depression, dementia, and suicide, was diagnosed in 110 of 111 donated brains of deceased NFL players.
Pediatric neurosurgeon Sam Browd thought of redesigning the football helmet in 2013. "I was tired of telling kids their athletic careers were over," he says. Vicis, the Seattle-based company he co-founded with fellow University of Washington professor Per Reinhall, an engineer, and Dave Marver, former CEO of the Cardiac Science Corp., has been racing to redesign the football helmet to make it safer. The three started Vicis that year, and after four years of R&D they've gotten their product over the goal line in time for the 2017 season.
The Zero1's outside shell gives on impact, absorbing the force of the hit. The Zero1 finished first in a safety test of 33 helmets conducted by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, beating out more than 20 entries from Riddell and Schutt, which currently supply about 90 percent of the helmets used on all levels of play. Richard Sherman, Alex Smith, and Jadeveon Clowney are among the NFLers expected to wear the Zero1 this season. Vicis's game plan is to also redesign helmets for other sports, such as lacrosse and hockey.
Safety first, style later
Vicis first focused on achieving a high safety margin, measured by drop tests, pendulum tests, and linear impact tests. Once those standards were achieved, the designers began trimming unnecessary materials and fine-tuning the aesthetic. "Think of it like a team building a racecar," says Vicis director of R&D Kurt Fischer. "First you have to be able to attain the speed you're after. Then you can make it better looking."
Taking it on the chin strap
Vicis substantially redesigned the front and adjusted the point where the chin strap attaches, making the helmet more comfortable and stable. The wider facemask allows a broader field of vision than what other helmets offer, and has proved popular among players.
Changing the fit--and the price
Vicis talked to players, equipment managers, medical staff--anyone who might handle a helmet. Trainers pointed to the importance of quickly removing a helmet in the event of injury. So the jaw pads were designed to slide out easily. Vicis scrapped the standard one-size-fits-all approach, instead creating three helmet sizes, as well as offering interior pads in a range of thicknesses to create a better fit. These safer, snugger helmets are priced accordingly: $1,500 for the Zero1 versus $250 to $450 for other models currently used in the NFL.
Shock absorbers for the skull
The helmet's structure is specifically designed to mitigate the hits that cause the head to rotate around its center axis, known as rotational force, which science suggests plays a big factor in concussions. Browd's initial sketch featured movable, tectonic-like plates, but that proved impractical. Instead, the design evolved to include 500-plus columns that bend on impact, allowing the helmet to absorb energy more effectively. "You have only about two inches between the exterior of the shell and the head," Reinhall says. "Imagine running
at a wall headfirst with a helmet on and coming to a standstill from full speed. It really matters what you do with those two inches."
Expect to hear more thuds instead of those helmet-to-helmet pops this season. The Zero1 has a soft exterior that borrows from engineering principles used in modern-day motor vehicles, including crumple zones, which absorb energy and slow impact forces.
The hard shell
The hard layer, necessary to protect the skull, has been placed inside instead. "Basically," Marver says, "we turned the helmet inside out."
The new look
"I envisioned something very futuristic, kind of high tech and sleek," Marver says of the design. "Sort of like a very impressive sports car." NFL players, on the other hand, favored a more conventional design. Result: A traditional-looking helmet with cleaner lines yet noticeable contours--what Vicis calls a modern classic. The bottom of the helmet is open, so a player can peek in and see the columns inside. "When people turn it over, they're like, 'Ohhh,' " says Fischer. "They can look right at what makes it different. That has a dramatic impact." Just not on their skulls.
Calling an audible: a last-minute tweak
Former NFL star defensive lineman Tony Siragusa (left) loved how the helmet felt, but noticed a problem when he took his three-point stance. "I have little alligator arms," he says. "When I put my hand on the ground, my head has to be able to look up." Siragusa felt that the back of the helmet was getting stuck on his shoulder pads. "Athletes don't want to be restricted in any way or they'll freak out," he says. To compensate, Vicis trimmed about a quarter inch off the back bottom of the helmet.