The big four

Posted June 27, 2012 @ 1:24 p.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

This is Part Two of PFW’s look inside the helmet industry as it pertains to the NFL. In Part Two, associate editor Kevin Fishbain writes about the four major helmet brands — Schutt, Riddell, Rawlings and Xenith, and what those companies are doing to make better helmets.

Producer of the second-most popular helmet in the NFL, Schutt entered the market in the late 1980s. The company began in 1918 making basketball nets. Schutt manufactured the first football faceguard in 1935. The company had purchased the intellectual property and helmet molds of Bike, and that got it started in the helmet business in 1987.

In 2003, Schutt introduced Skydex TPU Cushioning. “It was the first time going from traditional foam padding that you find in football helmets,” said Glenn Beckman, director of marketing communications for Schutt. The material, which had been used by the U.S. military, was better at “absorbing impact more consistently than traditional foam padding,” Beckman explained. Schutt has now developed its own version of TPU Cushioning, which is being used in its fourth generation of helmets.

Schutt’s researchers found that the TPU Cushioning remained consistent in extreme temperatures, whether hot or cold, and the traditional helmets felt the impacts. “The impact-absorbing characteristics of traditional foam padding under extreme conditions were significantly affected by the weather,” Beckman said. Schutt’s TPU Cushioning, though, remained constant.

“We found that in extreme temperatures that the foam padding in other helmets was absorbing substantially less impact than our helmets were,” Beckman said. “We believe we have the most dynamic and best performing protective system on the field.” In addition to the cushioning, Beckman said the helmets provide air flow inside the helmet so that the helmet can help the body cool itself.

Beckman indicated there are three important facets of the Schutt helmets: management of force and absorption of impact, trying to make the helmets as light as possible while maintaining strength and capabilities and helping the body cool itself.

Approximately 30.5 percent of NFL players wear Schutt helmets, Beckman said, though that number, like all the percentages, is subject to change as players try new helmets this summer. Nearly 80 percent of the Super Bowl-champion Giants wore Schutt helmets in 2012.

Players that wear Schutt include Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Justin Tuck, Mario Williams, Aaron Rodgers, Pierre Thomas, Robert Griffin III and Calvin Johnson. In the 2012 Virginia Tech helmet ratings study, which gives a star rating to helmets based on their ability to reduce the risk of concussion (with five stars being the best), the Schutt ION 4D and Schutt DNA Pro+ each received four stars. The Schutt Air XP received three stars and the Schutt Air Advantage received two stars. Beckman has harsh criticism for the study, which will be outlined in Part Three of this series.

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Riddell, whose helmet has been the official helmet of the NFL since 1989, actually started in 1922 with football cleats before getting into helmets. The Riddell Revolution was designed in 2002 with the intent of reducing the risk of concussion.

“What was found by on-field research was that many of the concussions that were happening were impacts to the side of the head and face. There was an opportunity to improve the protective capability of football helmets from these side impacts,” said Thad Ide, who is Riddell’s senior vice president of research and product development. 

Speaking to PFW at Riddell’s offices in Rosemont, Ill., Ide showed the Revolution’s “energy-managing material” and jaw flap extensions at the front of the shell.

In its latest helmet, the 360, Riddell used research from its patented HITS technology (Head Impact Telemetry System), which accounted for 1.6 million hits, to see that most of the impacts were to the front of the helmet. They moved the front faceguard attachment to side locations.

“What we found is that when faceguards are attached at the upper location, forces of impact are transferred much more rapidly and directly to the shell and internal padding system than if you can interrupt that transfer of force,” Ide said. “If you move these to the side, it allows the faceguard to flex outward when the front strike happens and these hinge clips allow (the faceguard) to flex.”

Critics have questioned Riddell’s innovation, or lack thereof. “For decades, Riddell has been using the same concept for the interior of their helmet,” said Vin Ferrara, founder of Xenith. “(The padding is) really in the same spots, they’re just using more of it. The helmets have gotten bigger and the shells have gotten more intricate.”

Ide refuted that claim. “Riddell has continued to innovate in the football protective world for decades. There is nothing dated about the technology inside Riddell helmets,” he said. “In any measurable way, Riddell helmets are the top performing helmets.”

All Riddell helmets, in a partnership with USA Football, will now have a hangtag with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Heads Up program about concussions.

“The number one priority is protection,” Ide said. “That’s our first 10 priorities when developing a football helmet.”

With so many players wearing Riddell, though, the aesthetics do come into play.

“If you develop something that no one will wear, it won’t do anyone any good. Visually appealing, comfortable, lightweight, ventilated — all those things go into it as well,” Ide said. “But priorities 1-10 are protecting the athlete.”

More than 70 percent of NFL players wear Riddell helmets. The Riddell 360 and Riddell Revolution Speed received five stars from the Virginia Tech study. The Riddell Revolution and Riddell Revolution IQ received four stars.

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In 1902, Rawlings invented the shoulder pads, and NFL players wore Rawlings helmets throughout most of the 20th century, up until 1989. In the 1990s, Rawlings exited the football helmet business and focused on spring sports and it is the official helmet of Major League Baseball.

Rawlings decided several years ago to reenter the helmet market in football. They still had the shoulder pads, but it was time to return to making headgear.

“From a strategic standpoint, if you’re going to be a real difference in the marketplace, you need to have the helmet,” said David Hill, senior product director at Rawlings.

From a business standpoint, Rawlings relaunched NFL helmets in 2011, and Rams RB Steven Jackson is one of the players who wears one, along with Texans RB Arian Foster and Texans WR Andre Johnson.

In their helmet designs, Hill said Rawlings took advantage of an “increased offset” between a player’s head and the helmet wall. “That space allows for greater padding, and greater padding allows for better performance,” Hill said.

Rawlings helmets use a base layer of padding called AIA, which is an “impact continuation design based around an airbag,” Hill said. The Rawlings helmets also have what they call heat exchange. “It maximizes air flow so that we optimize the cooling properties of the helmet. … We want to make sure our design allows for a maximum cooling effect,” Hill added.

Kurt Hunzeker, Rawlings’ senior director of brand marketing, said a company focus is on education when it comes to fitting.

“A great hunger from a consumer, parent or coach is what should I be looking for in a helmet? Once you get into that dialogue, then it turns into how you properly fit the helmet,” Hunzeker said. “That’s a very big initiative for us right now.”

Jackson has been a “phenomenal cheerleader,” as Hunzeker put it, for the Rawlings helmets.

“(Jackson) has talked repeatedly about how there were times last season when he took a pretty good shot and had this comfort he hadn’t had before,” Hunzeker said. “With Steven, he has an authenticity about him. … His story is what we will broadcast to that 14-year-old JV player.”

The Rawlings Quantum Plus received five stars in the Virginia Tech study, and both the Rawlings Quantum and Rawlings Impulse were four-star helmets.

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Former Harvard QB Vin Ferrara watched Eric Lindros lying on the ice. The NHL star had suffered another concussion, and the unfortunate incident for Lindros helped Ferrara create an idea that has resulted in Xenith, the newest helmet maker on the market.

“That was really the spark of inspiration that got me hooked on trying to make better helmets,” Ferrara said. “Ultimately, that led to the vision to not only innovate but educate as well.”

Ferrara got into sports medicine in college and went to Columbia’s medical and business schools. He said he had one diagnosed concussion — in seventh grade — and four or five other hits that he played through. His mother was ahead of the curve when he received his concussion, saying Ferrara should not play the rest of the season, even when the doctor said he would have to miss only a couple days.

Using the knowledge of how the brain moves inside the skull in reaction to sudden movements of the head, Ferrara got to work on a system that was “adaptive to other energy levels.”

“Lower energy impacts tend to warrant a softer response from the helmet. Higher energy impacts warrant a stiffer response,” he said. “If your helmet is too stiff, it doesn’t compress. The energy of the blow will go to the head and the head will move suddenly. … A lot of the head injuries that you’re seeing later in life and the horrible stories that are coming out are due to repeated hits that would not have registered as big hits.”

Ferrara found that adaptive energy system for the shock absorbers that sets Xenith apart in a unique manner. Ferrara happened upon a squirt bottle in his office and he pounded on it, which gave him the adaptive response he was looking for.

"The best example is when you push down on a bicycle pump, the harder you push down, the more resistance you feel. That’s basically how the shock absorbers work," Ferrara said. "The harder they’re hit, the more air turbulence gets built up inside and you get a stiffer response in response to higher energies, softer to lower energies."

Ferrara calls the Xenith helmet, which has 18 shock absorbers that react to hits on a wide range of energies and directions, the most innovative on the market. With the fit of a helmet being paramount to a player’s safety, the Xenith helmets have an adaptive fit system where players pull on the chin straps to get the correct fit.

Ravens Pro Bowl C Matt Birk, a 14-year NFL veteran, has worn a Xenith helmet for three seasons.

“Hitting people and taking hits, it just felt a lot better. I noticed I wasn’t getting dinged,” Birk said about his first season wearing the Xenith. “I could wear this thing all day. It’s very comfortable.”

Birk said the shock absorbers have “really piqued guys’ interest,” — his teammate, RB Ray Rice is also wearing the Xenith helmet — but the six-time Pro Bowler also explained that the helmet design looks a little different than what players are used to.

“When you put a Xenith on, it feels so different. It almost messes with your equilibrium because it’s different. Players like routine,” Birk said.

Ferrara emphasized Xenith’s innovation and what makes the helmet maker distinctly different from its rivals.

“We are really out there, taking it to a new frontier in terms of study,” he said. “Our company is comprised of football players. When football players talk about this, I can appreciate it. I know what they’re feeling. I don’t think any other company can say their company was founded explicitly for the purpose of addressing this issue. … Xenith was founded to make football helmets and address the concussion issue.”

In the 2012 Virginia Tech star ratings study, the Xenith X1 helmet received four stars and the Xenith X2 helmet received three stars, but Ferrara is extremely critical of the study. His remarks can be seen in Part Three of this story.

Tomorrow: Head Games, Part Three: Scores and Stars

Read Part One: Protecting the yolk

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