Can you put a price tag on safety? The head football coach at Kentucky Country Day School doesn’t think so.
The Bearcats this season have brand new helmets. That’s not unique — multiple teams across the commonwealth get new gear every year — but the helmet itself is. All 36 football players at KCD will wear the Vicis Zero1, the first helmet manufactured by Vicis, a Seattle-based startup that designed its football helmet from the ground up in an effort to reduce concussions and head injuries.
Its sticker price is $950, reduced from about $1,500 last year. That’s the biggest reason why KCD will be the only Kentucky school wearing Vicis Zero1 helmets during the 2018 season.
About 10 families paid for their kid’s helmet, which he’ll get to take with him onto college if he so wishes. The rest of the helmets were paid for via a private donation from another football player’s family, who wished to not be named. The team benefited from a “buy five, get one free” deal, which helped, but the total expenditure was still more than $20,000 higher than it would have cost to outfit the same 36 players with other helmet brands, which typically cost teams about $150-200 per head.
“They’re expensive,” said Matthew Jones, head coach of the Bearcats. “I think a lot of programs, and we, have to choose between new lights on our field or these helmets. Or new uniforms or these helmets. In my study and my estimation, the safety of our kids always came to the forefront to be number one. And not that the other kids we play aren’t safe. But, for me, that’s number one.”
‘You can tell a difference’
Football remains the most-played sport by boys at the high school level, but the number of boys in recent years has declined after the sport experienced a steady uptick in interest through the 1990s and 2000s. National participation in the 2016-17 school year (1,057,382) was down 2.7 percent from the 2012-13 school year (1,086,627) and down 5.2 percent from the 2008-09 school year, when a record 1,112,303 boys played high school football among the 14,105 schools that sponsored the sport. Last year’s figure was the lowest participation rate since the 2004-05 school year, when a reported 1,045,494 boys played (with 13,671 schools sponsoring football; 14,099 schools sponsored the sport in 2016-17).
Fear of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to repeated head injuries, is often cited as a reason for the decline in participation. Vicis helmets have a pliable exterior rather than the hard plastic of traditional helmets, and the inside is lined with vertical cones that can bend on impact, absorbing contact better than a rigid interior.
The newest Vicis Zero1 model was the top-performing helmet in the NFL’s most-recent performance testing, and last year’s model was the second top-performing helmet. Those rankings note that there are no significant safety differences from those helmets and the other 15 helmets in what the NFL describes as the “top-performing group,” but players at KCD say they’ve felt better since adopting the new gear.
“Normally at this point, at full-contact, my head would be hurting and I’d be having a lot of headaches after practice,” said Hunter Bates, a senior tight end, in early August.
“You can tell a difference,” Lawson Whiting, a senior linebacker, said. “In the spring we were wearing the other helmets and now when you go up to hit someone, I don’t get the headaches I used to get, really. Every once in a while on one of the bigger hits your head would be ringing. I haven’t had that happen yet.”
Junior quarterback Dorian Heard loves how customizable the helmets are. KCD’s players were custom-fitted by a Vicis representative and can have individual pieces of the interior padding replaced to make for a better fit. He was also able to have his visor window cut a little further to increase his peripheral vision.
“I believe they’re a game-changer,” Heard said. “They’re a bit lighter than the other ones, provide better vision for quarterbacks and any other position out there, the padding is different, and the padding is everything, to me.”
Not just because it’s more comfortable — it’s less likely to stink up the place, too.
“Our old helmets, they just absorbed the sweat and you put them on and they smelled terrible,” Heard said.” These new ones, it’s not that bad. If it gets to the point where you can’t stand it, you can take the pads out and get new ones.”
‘The biggest outside thing’
Vicis’ design is revolutionary, but it does not prevent head trauma. NFL linebacker Brian Cushing, one of several players known to use the Vicis Zero1, suffered a concussion during the Houston Texans’ season opener in 2017.
Still, adoption is increasing for the NFL’s safest helmet. Notre Dame announced in November that it would become the first college to outfit most of its team with Vicis helmets after receiving positive feedback from players in the program who wore them in 2017. GeekWire reported in April that more than 400 high school programs will have players using Vicis Zero1 helmets this season, but only a few programs have gone all-in.
For now, KCD is the only one with that distinction in Kentucky, but Jones is hopeful that’ll change as the technology becomes less expensive. And, even if the improved safety of the helmet is negligible compared to other top-performing helmets, he believes the cost is worth it.
“Being on the cutting edge of safety, man, I just keep coming back to that,” Jones said. “I think every single thing we do, from planning practice to our off-season program to our game-day procedure, everything needs to come back to the safety of our athletes. We need to check and double check that all the boxes are taken care and that our kids can cut loose and have fun playing the game instead of having to worry about all the outside things.
“And safety is the biggest outside thing.”