By Ingrid Schnader
Amidst the controversy surrounding football and brain damage, Mountain Brook High School football coach Chris Yeager has gone forward and found something to help his players on the field.
It all started when he realized that the inside of helmets that players had been using were losing their pliability.
“It’s almost like a cardboard box,” he said. “It probably would not be able to do what it was designed originally to do.”
He got even more worried when he sent one player’s helmet in to be reconditioned, which includes a test that determines a helmet’s ability to deflect energy and determines how much energy it absorbs. The helmet he sent in was rejected in two places.
“So my question is this: Did that occur week one? Did that occur week five? Did that occur week 10?”
There was no way to know how long that player had been playing football in a helmet that wasn’t doing its job.
He started looking for a way to change the gameday helmets, and he read about the inSite technology in Riddell helmets. It has five sensors on the inside of the helmet. Every time the helmet is hit, it gauges the location and intensity of the hit — either green, yellow or red.
The football trainers monitor these results during games. If a player receives a red-level impact, the school’s medical staff will determine whether he needs to go through concussion protocol — a period during which he will avoid sunlight, phone screens and social media, in addition to having his reflexes and responses monitored.
“Early intervention number one … would be better for a player’s health and safety 20 years down the road,” he said.
Not every red-level impact means there is a concussion. It just means the player was hit hard. But Yeager said that if this early-intervention monitoring system helps just one player, it will have been worth it.
“The one that slips through the cracks — that’s why we check them all,” he said. “We may check six guys at the game that had the sensor go off, and we may have that happen a hundred times this year. But that one, that’s the one we’re looking for, that one that can possibly benefit from that.”
If a helmet recieves multiple red-light indicators, the football staff will change the helmet out. This is how they can avoid giving players compromised helmets in the future.
This technology also gives the school’s medical staff more information to make an evaluation when a player has symptoms similar to those of a concussion.
“I talked to a coach from down in Florida that uses this technology,” Yeager said. “And he told me that he had a player that has had these chronic headaches that won’t go away.”
The medical team put the player through concussion protocol, but when they checked his helmet, they discovered it hadn’t had any contact in weeks.
“So they started asking his mom, and the mom said, ‘Well he does have allergies. It’s the turn of the season and he hasn’t taken his allergy medicine,’” he said.
Once the player got his allergy medicine, Yeager said, his symptoms cleared up.
Sitting out, Checking for Damage
Last, the helmet technology benefits the players by determining if they need to sit out during practice, and if so, which portions they should sit out of to give their head a rest.
“If we have a player, and he’s just one of those — some guys are wired this way — and he hits everything that moves, then we’ll pull them out of certain portions of practice,” Yeager said. “Our trainers, they have a baseline number, and so we’ll pull them out of certain portions of practice and give them a rest from that.”
Dr. James Johnston, a neurosurgeon on the Children’s of Alabama Concussion Task Force, said these practice limitations have improved the amount of head impact exposure being experienced by players.
“Although concussions are important to recognize, just head impacts that are cumulative over time also pose a risk to children and young men who play football,” Johnston said.
During the fall football season, Johnson said, he’s seen a rise of football players with head injuries who come in to Children’s of Alabama’s Friday Night Concussion Clinic. The clinic opens every Friday during football season at 8:30 p.m. so players can seek immediate medical attention for a head injury.
Both Johnston and Yeager note that football has made many great strides forward in concussion prevention.
“I think about the game back when I played 40 years ago – how much it’s changed with the safety equipment and concussion protocol – the way the game is taught,” Yeager said. “Used to, you were taught, first thing you do is make contact with your helmet. And now, coaches teach you don’t ever make contact with your helmet.
Ultimately, Yeager said he wants his players to be able to enjoy the game, just as he did 40 years ago.
“Looking back, I can think of very few negative things that have occurred in football that have impacted me now,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything. And I want a player, when he’s 40 years out or 50 years out, that he can look back and see nothing but positive experiences. To me, if we were doing anything in football that would negatively impact a player that far into his life, I just don’t know if I could live with that.”