Several companies are working to create safer helmets for the NFL, one of them being the Simpson-Ganassi helmet. Its designer, Bill Simpson, is already in the Halls of Fame of five different motor racing sports, for his development of a system of safer head and neck stabilization for racing drivers.
His business partner in the football helmet project, Chip Ganassi, credits a Simpson racing helmet for saving his life during a devastating 1984 crash at Michigan International Speedway. Simpson also worked on the restraint system for the Apollo Lunar Rover on its moon mission, among other credentials.
Simpson was introduced to Tom Moore, Peyton Manning’s long-time mentor, back in 2010. The two of them hit it off immediately, and Simpson joined Moore at an October 3, 2010 game that featured the Colts against the Jaguars. WR Austin Collie was knocked out during the game, and another player was carted from the field after a cranial impact. Simpson later inquired as to the players’ health, and Moore said to him lightly that concussions were ‘just part of the game’. Simpson was aghast.
Simpson asked for a couple of NFL helmets to take back to his shop. There, he’d developed safety gear for racing, including helmets, an integrated head and neck support system, and fireproof suits. The testing he subjected the helmets to convinced him that they were unsafe. Simpson decided to start from scratch.
To achieve this, Simpson talked at length to players, coaches, and even neurosurgeons. He spent six months without making any serious progress on the problem. He had to identify exactly why the current helmets didn’t work before improving upon them.
“I kept thinking, 'We can do better, we have to do better,'" he said. And then it hit him - what if the standard helmet's weight was at the core of the problem?
When you suffer a concussion while wearing a standard helmet, it’s the neck that takes the brunt of snapping forward and back - the brain is just a passenger until it sloshes somewhat inside the cranium. This creates what’s called an acceleration/deceleration whiplash. The neck has to support both the weight of the head and the weight of the helmet at the moment of greatest force. Few players have the neck musculature for that.
Simpson said of the source of the head and neck strain, “It’s a pendulum, and necks aren't strong enough (to handle that weight moving at impact).”
The original version of the Riddell helmet was actually making the concussions worse. Simpson’s new helmet design had to minimize weight and maximize protection by using a new high-tech padding that gives at first, then becomes increasingly resistant as force increases against it, cradling the head safely through the moment of impact. Simpson acknowledges that it’s impossible to completely minimize the brain movement inside the skull, but says that his new design greatly reduces that problem.
Simpson had originally gotten in contact with Austin Collie and then-Colt Jeff Saturday, among others, during the latter part of 2010 and into 2011. By late 2011, he’d come up with a basic model that’s been refined since then.
Last year, about 20 NFL players and 400 youths wore Simpson helmets. Some of them wore them all the time, others wore them in practice but not in games. There were flaws to be overcome - players spoke of the helmets’ pads getting musty - even soggy - and developing odors. Despite those issues, last year not one player experienced a concussion while wearing a Simpson helmet.
No helmet will prevent every concussion, every time, and this is a small sample, but it’s also an enviable trend that’s well worth examining. This is a man who once produced a fireproof suit for racecar drivers, and who deliberately had it set afire - while he was wearing it, on camera. He’s a believer in what he’s created and is fine putting both his reputation and his health on the line to prove it.
Simpson said that the biggest hurdle has been in getting the right parts and materials. He currently has five patents pending for new materials that he had to develop when solving the helmet problems. Simpson also wound up using Kevlar (the standard material for bulletproof vests), carbon fiber, and other exotic materials that haven’t been used for NFL helmets before. The padding is one of the materials of his own invention. The next generation helmets are ready to be used in the upcoming season. He will be able to produce up to 50 per day.
His pro helmets are about half the weight of the standard Riddell NFL helmet. Players who have worn the Simpson helmet during practice say the neck cramps, cervical pain, and headaches common to wearing Riddell helmets were reduced when they used a Simpson. The neck cramps and pain they mentioned is often from the added weight of the old-style helmets. The headaches themselves can often be an early sign of the cumulative sub-concussive impacts that especially affect linemen, and which may, over time, become a bigger risk than properly managed single-event concussions.
It looks like any standard, basic NFL helmet on the outside; it’s only 2 lb, 8 oz. and can be painted in any team’s colors. There’s a youth model, too, that weighs only 1 lb, 4 oz. You can’t eliminate the concussion problem entirely, but Simpson is obviously sincere when he evangelizes about how much it can be reduced.
Right now, he’s bleaching the padding white so that you can’t guess what materials are in it, but the material is completely different from any that are currently in use. Tests performed by Simpson show that his helmet gives a much more progressive cushioning in tests that exceed the NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards of Athletic Equipment) standard. Pointing to a chart where the impact gives an initial spike over the 100 G mark on a test of a competitor's helmet, Simpson says "That's a concussion." It’s a spike that didn’t occur with one of Simpson’s creations in the same test.
Simpson isn’t in this to get rich - he already is. He’s just a man who’s always felt a personal responsibility to solve risk-oriented problems - this time, it’s to improve the helmet that football players use from the youth level through to the NFL. He’s identified the temple as the area most susceptible to impact and noted that it was poorly padded in the current helmets.
That was one impetus to redesign the concept of the helmet pads completely. When you slip into a Simpson-Ganassi helmet, you’re not gripped by a series of smaller pads, but into one, single padding unit that cradles the head in a unique way.
Riddell won’t give up its market share easily, and there are other players and other new technologies that will compete with Simpson-Ganassi. While other companies may be better funded, sometimes someone with an outside perspective can identify problems more efficiently.
Who will come out on top in the helmet race isn’t known. What we do know, disturbingly, is that the current design contributes as much to exacerbating concussions as in preventing them.
That has to change.