As we near the halfway point of the NFL season, the league is working to make the game safer.
Through the NFL Helmet Challenge, the league has recently awarded three teams of engineers $1.55 million in grant funding to “advance their innovative [helmet] designs and technologies and to help their products gets onto the field as soon as possible.”
"The NFL Helmet Challenge is about revolutionary, not just evolutionary improvement," said Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President of Communications in a press release. "The NFL set out to challenge the marketplace and accelerate development of new technologies. We're proud to support the awardees and advance player health."
The NFL Helmet Challenge: A two-year, $3 million competition to develop revolutionary new football helmets that perform better than anything currently worn by players.— NFL (@NFL) October 25, 2021
Check out how the NFL is driving protective equipment innovation: https://t.co/tAkMl7Bute pic.twitter.com/WNz4I517LN
The three companies awarded a portion of this round of funding are Impressio, Kollide, and Xenith.
Concussions have become a major concern in the NFL over the course of the last decade. High-profile players like Julius Thomas of the Denver Broncos, Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49’ers, and Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts have all cut their careers short over concern of future head injuries.
“I was in training camp with the Broncos in the summer of ’83 and I remember we were doing a drill called Oklahoma drill and I tackled a player and I remember seeing blue dots, and my nose was burning, my eyes were watering,” said Rick Parea, a performance psychologist who played in the NFL for two seasons. “I would look over across the locker room and I would see guys that are in their eighth, ninth, tenth year that were slurring their words, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is what I do for a living, you know?’ And it just really started to hit me then that this was kind of a primitive way to earn a living.”
When he retired from the NFL, Parea pursued a degree in performance psychology with the intention of studying how head trauma affects NFL players. In 2018, he founded ThinkOne, a consulting service that works with current and former NFL players who have experienced similar head injuries.
“[Repeated concussions] dampen their mood. They dampen their ability to connect with people. I’ve seen it time and time again where athletes are not the same jovial person they were 5 years before,” he said.
Knowing this information, the NFL has made a concerted effort to reduce the number of these injuries. There have been significant changes to rules that penalize players for helmet-to-helmet contact, contact after a play has concluded, and contact to a quarterback.
Through the NFL Helmet Challenge, the league is also showing investment in adding other protections to players.
“We feel very proud the NFL has given us additional funding to continue to develop our helmet,” said Lillian Chatham, a principal engineer at Impressio. “It really shows their trust in our technology and our company, as well as their commitment to safety.”
The NFL Helmet Challenge awarded $1.55M in grant funding to three teams of engineers to develop revolutionary new football helmets.— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) October 25, 2021
See how the @NFL is driving protective equipment innovation: https://t.co/83jq2TQAYZ pic.twitter.com/YfFA28ubYb
Impressio’s new helmet technology uses liquid crystal elastomers, or LCE’s, a malleable substance whose molecules shift upon impact to absorb energy.
Current NFL helmets use polyurethane or nitrile foam to absorb energy. Those materials work at dampening impact to the head, but the NFL estimates Impressio’s LCE’s are 13% more effective at doing the same job.
“If you’re just holding [the LCE] in your hand, you’re just like this is nice and soft, but as soon as you impact it at a higher speed it’s actually going to stiffen up and then that’s when it’s absorbing that energy,” said Chatham.
Currently, there is no timeline on when the designs through the NFL Helmet Challenge will be approved and manufactured for official use, but Chatham says she hopes within the next year or two.