A new football helmet, made right here in Central Indiana, could soon change the way youth football players are protected on the field.
Despite rule changes and even state laws designed to protect against concussions in football, experts say children are being neglected by helmet standards geared toward adults.
Bill Simpson, a safety pioneer in motorsports who ran two successful racing helmet companies, is now working on a solution for youth football players.
"I'm starting off with it being way better than anything that's on the market and I know that," Simpson said.
Simpson invited Fox59 News inside his warehouse to see the new prototype and to put it to the test.
"I'm a little nervous because you're photographing this and that's not ever been done before in my test lab," Simpson said.
Simpson made the transition into designing football helmets last year, when he began tackling the issue with NFL player Austin Collie. Simpson was trying to develop a helmet that would help Collie minimize the kind of hits that had previously sidelined him with concussions.
He came up with a solution that was much lighter than traditional helmets, thanks to the use of high tech materials, many which he couldn’t disclose due to pending patents.
Collie has never suffered a concussion in Simpson’s helmet. He stopped wearing it late last season, and then suffered another concussion with a different helmet during the 2012 preseason.
“I feel bad for him,” Simpson said. “But that was his choice.”
Simpson still has several NFL clients, but this season, he focused on mass producing his adult helmet for all levels of football players. He and his business partner, race team owner Chip Ganassi, are now beginning to fill orders for next season.
"There's no differentiation for me from the megastar that's playing NFL football versus the little kid that's playing in Pop Warner," Simpson said.
There are an estimated 3.5 million children playing in youth leagues, but local league officials said that number has been declining due to head injuries.
"Concussions were something that surprised us," said Becky Brooks, who has two young boys who play football. "Both of our boys had concussions in the same year, a few months apart last year."
"We get more questions now on a daily basis than we ever have concerning concussions," Aaron Hohlt said, the president of Center Grove Bantam Football. "We think football is under attack right now."
Brooks said she spoke to their family doctor and educated herself before allowing her sons back on the field. She also paid extra to buy a special helmet.
"A helmet is their best protection for their head and their brain,” Brooks said.
There's just one big problem...
"To my knowledge there's not a well-fitting, well-designed helmet for young kids that play football,” said Dr. Steve Olvey, Associated Professor of Neurology at the University of Miami.
Olvey’s 2006 study on youth helmet design, found that children all the way up to age 16 or 17 have skulls and necks that are different from adults. Olvey concluded that they require helmets that are designed differently and are significantly lighter.
Dr. Olvey's research led to a new youth helmet standard for motor sports, but six years later there is still no standard for youth football.
"The problem is that many of the helmets used now are actually too heavy and they don't fit properly,” Olvey said. “You cannot just downsize an adult helmet and make it for kids and say it's okay for kids."
"These little kids shouldn't be wearing something that weighs five pounds on their head," Simpson said.
Simpson's new prototype youth helmet is designed with a child's head in mind, and also features new combinations of materials, from a lighter titanium face mask, to the raised ridges on the outer shell.
"There's some material in there that absorbs the initial impact,” Simpson said, “before it gets anywhere close to the liner."
Simpson said the liner is also advanced, though it looks incredibly simple.
"The biggest issue that I have right now is parents saying to me, 'This looks like a Styrofoam piece,’” Simpson said. “Well, it's not a Styrofoam. It's space age."
Simpson said the liner is a new mix of three materials. He won’t disclose exactly what it is, but said it outperforms all the foam and air pockets that are that have often been used for padding.
"The performance speaks for itself," Simpson said.
Fox59 put that to the test, beginning with a weight comparison. Most of the current youth helmets weight at least four pounds, but the SGH helmet weighed in at one pound, 15 ounces.
We than decided to see how it held up to standardized impact tests.
"We've never dropped a little kids helmet before," Simpson said, prior to letting us film the first tests of his prototype.
Evan Breedlove, a Mechanical Engineering Phd Student at Purdue University, conducted the tests. In addition to his studies for Purdue, he works as an independent contractor at SGH.
"This box here is what's collecting all the data," Breedlove said, referring to a piece of equipment.
Breedlove conducted a drop test, which is the standard for all football helmets that are certified for use in football. The test measures the G-forces inside a head at the time of impact as well as a category known as Severity Index. The lower those two numbers are, the better.
"Bringing down any of those numbers is a good thing,” Breedlove said. “The question is just, how good?"
First, Breedlove tested one of the most popular helmets currently on the market, the Riddell Youth Revolution Speed. After two drops, it registered an average Severity Index of 734 and 101 g’s.
Then, it was time for Simpson's new SGH youth helmet.
"We don't know what this thing is going to do,” Simpson said. “But we think we know what it's going to do, but we'll see here in a second won't we?"
After two drops, the Simpson helmet registered a Severity Index of 340 and 58 g’s, cutting the scores of the competing helmet in half.
"Yeah, I would say it's a little better wouldn't you?” Simpson said. "Is that twice as good?”
The scores of both helmets both easily surpassed the current standard for football helmets. Though the comparison was just a small sample of normal testing procedures, Breedlove said the results still stand out.
"Numbers don't lie," Breedlove said.
For now, the numbers say the racing safety pioneer is leading the way again.
"There's light at the end of the tunnel in getting really good helmets for kids that play youth football," Dr. Olvey said.
"All of these little kids getting concussions, I just hope it will minimize that,” Simpson said. “We don't know. Let's get it out in the field.”
That’s exactly what he’s beginning to do. Simpson is sending the helmet to youth tournaments so that parents and kids can begin to see and feel the difference. SGH is also beginning to take orders, which will be filled in time for next season.
"As I told Mr. Simpson, ‘You realize you're probably getting ready to revolutionize a sport that's kind of on attack right now,’" Hohlt said.
To those who may be skeptical of the funny looking helmet from the small Indiana company, Hohlt said you shouldn’t underestimate Simpson.
"You see Rick Mears as a little kid growing up and going into a wall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then walking away without any problems,” Hohlt said. “Then you compare it to a kid out here getting hit. I think the guy kind of knows what he's talking about."
The cost of the SGH helmet could be a barrier for some parents and teams, though. It currently lists for $398 online. Simpson has offered discounts on it at some recent events, and the SGH sales team is also working to determine bulk pricing for teams.
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