By Rubin E. Grant
Ken Thompson has been around football for most of his life.
In all that time, he noticed one thing about the game that hasn’t changed.
“I’ll never forget my first experience playing youth football in the 1970s. Our coach instructed – yelled at – us each day to keep our head up. It was really difficult for most of us, especially for me, said Thompson, an attorney who lives in Mountain Brook.
“Years later, I watched my own son play youth football. I was slightly amused to hear my son’s coach giving his players the same ‘heads up’ instruction with the same level of intensity.”
With widespread concern about head injuries and concussions, Thompson figured something needed to be done other than just yelling at players to keep their heads up.
“While the football helmet may have evolved over the years to better protect the player, there is still no substitute for proper technique when making contact with the head,” Thompson said.
According to Thompson, studies have shown proper positioning of the head at the point of contact is a major factor in the prevention of injury.
“Experts all agree that the most vulnerable position for a player during contact is when his head is lowered,” he said. “The key to safety then is keeping the head up.”
Thompson, who played at Carroll High in Ozark, decided to design a device that could help players keep their heads up when making contact with another player. He spent more than 1½ years developing his “heads up” training tool. He consulted physicians, coaches, trainers, equipment managers and even mechanical engineers.
“I was determined to make a training tool (that was) safe and easy to use and effective as a means to teach a learned behavior,” he said.
Thompson wanted a piece of training equipment that would involve self-awareness of the position of the body, muscle memory and sensory cues, enabling players to be self-taught.
In the spring, Thompson introduced the Heads Up Training (H.U.T) Strap to a handful of Division I college programs – including Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Samford – and to several high schools, such as Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills. Recently, he spoke to coaches in the Hoover, Jefferson County and Mobile County school systems as well as local youth leagues.
“I’m trying to get the word out,” Thompson said. “I think this will be beneficial to players on all levels of football.”
Simple Design Makes Infractions Obvious
The H.U.T. Strap is an innovative, two-piece military grade nylon strap that is connected in the center of the helmet by a safety release clasp. The upper clasp is placed on the rear shell of a player’s helmet and the lower strap is placed on the rear shell of the player’s shoulder pads. The two straps are then connected and automatically detach with five pounds of tension being applied.
If a player improperly lowers his head beyond an acceptable range of motion, the safety release clasp unsnaps, providing a real-time sensory cue to the player and to others.
“It doesn’t restrict a player’s range of motion,” Thompson said. “It’s a training tool that tells a player when they are using improper technique. Players can feel and hear the H.U.T. Strap detach and coaches, trainers and other players can observe it. It provides a teaching/learning moment.”
Mountain Brook coach Chris Yeager appreciates the information gathered from use of the strap.
“The big thing is it gives you feedback on whether the player is in the proper athletic position,” Yeager said. “You want your players to have their eyes up so they can see what’s happening and process that information. If their chins are on their chests, then that’s when they’re in their most vulnerable position.
“Another big concern is players leading with the crown of their helmets. That’s a big no-no. This helps train players to not do that.”
The H.U.T. Strap has been approved by the National Center for Sport Safety.
“We believe that when used properly, the H.U.T. Strap can be a beneficial training tool that does not appear to pose any significant threat of injury to the wearer,” NCSS said in a statement giving its approval.
The strap costs $40, which is far less expensive than the so-called smart helmets, which use embedded sensory technology to measure the force of on-field collisions and send alerts when a player’s health might be in danger. Those can cost upward of $1,000.
“We’ve got 22 H.U.T. straps and use them mostly for our linemen,” Yeager said. “Our game helmets have the sensory technology and are a lot more expensive. These straps are a good alternative to that for teams that can’t afford the smart helmets.”
Thompson believes his invention could be used for other sports.
“Lacrosse and hockey are no different than football when it comes to safety,” Thompson said. “They are all sports where players must avoid head-down contact. Proper heads-up play is also the key to performance in those sports.”