New helmet hopes to be more effective in limiting head trauma

Ryan Bomben calls it the most comfortable helmet he’s ever worn.

The eight-year CFL veteran is one of two Hamilton Tiger-Cats wearing the new VICIS Zero 1 helmet, which features a innovative new design, including a soft exterior to helmet absorb impacts. The company has made one of each size to CFL teams around the league – defensive end John Chick is also trying one – and it will be rolled out to NFL training camps later this summer.


The new product topped independent testing of 33 helmets conducted in Canada by the league and NFL Players’ Association. The results, which included testing the impact at three velocities and in eight locations on each helmet, were sent to each team and to the players.

The Zero 1 is the first to account for rotational as well as linear impact. Scientific studies have indicated that rotational impact has more correlation with concussions.

“All helmets that are certified are available for players to wear, we just take another step with which ones tested best in the lab,” says Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice-president of health and safety policies. “We make it clear in our communications, this is just lab testing and how that translates to on the field is an open issue.”

The NFL and union have released a poster highlighting results of the testing, which can’t reflect the comfort element. That’s entirely up to each player and the Zero 1 already hit a snag last year when two universities, Oregon and Washington, sent them back because they weren’t comfortable.

“Equipment managers are great in making it clear this is one element of which helmet they should choose,” Miller adds of the testing, conducted in January and March. “Fit matters and comfort matters, and other issues that are relevant to a player.”

The Zero 1 has been 3 1-2 years in the making. It has two layers, and deforms (basically, compresses) and reforms in the first layer. The second layer absorbs much of the force.

“The notion is it will mitigate a lot more of the force when a helmet hits something ,” Miller says. “It is a novel design.”

Its creator, Dave Marver, and his associates met NFL equipment staffers to find out their likes and dislikes, all the while seeking to make a next-generation helmet for protection and performance. Marver finished the engineering phase last year, and then it was “time to get the helmet on the field,” he says. He worked with semipro teams and colleges – Auburn and UAB tried it during camps this spring – made more refinements, and now minicamps will be a major testing ground.

“I would suggest it’s the most extensively tested helmet in history,” Marver notes. “It is very different. Traditional helmets are all designed the same, with a solid inner shell. Ours does deform and can withstand thousands of impacts. It’s a more sophisticated design.”

Is it the right design? Roger Staubach, Jerry Rice, Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin must think so, because they are either investors or supporters of Zero 1, Marver says. And angelMD, which has helped fund the VICIS project, has a network of health care investors – 80 per cent of them physicians – supporting Zero 1. Tobin Arthur, CEO for angelMD, says doctors have told him there could be applications for lacrosse, hockey, skiing and even the military, too.

Dr. J. Michael Bennett of the Fondren Orthopedic Group in Houston, who’s played contact sports and whose 11-year-old son plays lacrosse, calls it the “most evidence-based helmet I have seen.”

“It is a big step in regards to disrupting the technology,” said Bennett, who was an independent reviewer of the Zero1 during development, but was not paid by VICIS. “But when you’re trying to change the habits of an industry like the NFL, you will need all the proof and data to back you up on that. You can’t throw the helmet out there and expect them to jump on board.”

Even before the players strap on the Zero 1, there are skeptics. They include Chris Nowinski, founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, who worries about a potential trickle-down effect. He strongly supports not having kids play football until they reach high school, and fears messaging to parents that it’s a good idea to allow their youngsters to play the sport because of an improved helmet.

“I’m well aware of marketing messages promoting the values of the game without talking about the risk of the game,” Nowinski says. “The overall effect can be negative, selling these to children who shouldn’t be playing.

“Yes, it is possible to improve helmets, but is it possible to improve them enough to make a big dent in CTE or concussion risk? At this point I haven’t seen those revolutionary changes.”

The NFL and players’ union are hopeful the Zero 1 can lead to such changes. The helmet, which retails for a pricey $1,500 and is only available to CFL, NFL and college teams, received a grant of just under $1 million from the league, General Electric and Under Armour in the Head Health Challenge _ a collaboration that identifies and funds innovations to improve head health for athletes, members of the military and society. Marver envisions specific helmets for specific positions down the line, noting that the hits a running back might take are far different from those a lineman endures.

For now, though, the focus is on minicamps, where contact doesn’t compare to real games, but offers a valid starting point in evaluation of the VICIS helmet.

“What I find most encouraging is there is probably a level of optimism in that you can affect the marketplace around health and safety,” Miller says. “If this dynamic of engaging with (VICIS and other grant winners) has already proven to show some real benefits, chances are it will show even more benefits in the future. And that gives you reason for optimism.”

– the Associated Press with files from Drew Edwards. 


12 Comments on New helmet hopes to be more effective in limiting head trauma

  1. mrnehnehincognito // June 6, 2017 at 1:11 pm //

    Soft helmets? isn’t that what they wore in the 40’s and 50’s?

    • dangnabbit // June 6, 2017 at 1:32 pm //

      I think this has a hard middle layer, although the description isn’t super clear. Soft layers absorb an impact’s energy; hard layers spread pressure over a wider area. I’d guess it has to have a hard layer anyway, because otherwise imagine what happens when the facemask is struck: the helmet flexes where the mask attaches to it, allowing the bars to be smashed into the wearer’s face.

  2. mrnehnehincognito // June 6, 2017 at 1:47 pm //

    sounds like a similar principal to how cars are built today. Protective core but exterior parts made to cave to absorb the energy of a crash

  3. The video is company hype but the helmet looks like a good concept. Guess we’ll see if it works in the practical. Another thing is when camp starts and you have 80 players @1500.00$ a head. That hurts.

  4. Solara2000 // June 6, 2017 at 9:51 pm //

    Fingers Xd. Concussions are literally game breakers for the players and ultimately the game if they can’t be all but eradicated.
    Who wants to put their children in harms way?

  5. doobzacheria // June 6, 2017 at 10:05 pm //

    Yeah, hope these turn out to be difference makers. $1500 a head is a small price for fewer head injuries, which could lead to longer careers and more importantly, better lives after football.

  6. Agreed, and let’s face it wages in the CFL are more blue collar compared to the NFL. I think the sudden retirements that seem to be happening are in part players taking care of themselves using their university/college degrees to move on with their health intact. As much as you might love to play, living a life without serious brain injuries is the more tempting path. If something not done it could hurt or change the CFL, possibly.

  7. Good to see new designs are being tested, and hopefully there will be benefits. But I’ll be “that guy” and repeat that the underlying problem is that the brain within the skull is like an unbelted passenger inside a car. If a collision drastically alters the momentum of the car, the unbelted passenger will take a beating.

    It will also be interesting to see whether there will be any injury risk tradeoffs with designs like this (i.e. potential increase to risk of neck injuries from soft-shelled helmets that might be more likely to “catch” against other surfaces in collisions)

  8. Scottsask // June 7, 2017 at 10:17 am //

    Yes soft helmets were used in the 40’s and you likely didn’t see as many gratuitous head shots, this is what still needs to be cleaned up in the game. That being said I think things have improved greatly in the last decade. With stricter rules and concussion protocols put in place.

  9. mrnehnehincognito // June 7, 2017 at 10:39 am //

    As a fan who enjoys purchasing used helmets sometimes (I always go to the stamps post season locker room sale) I would hate to see what they charge for a used if a new one is $1,500.00

  10. Edward Leslie // June 8, 2017 at 4:49 pm //

    Maybe the leather helmets from the dawn of civilization were better. Who knew? It’s all the fault of these idiots using their heads to ram opponents. It’s hard to legislate against stupidity.

  11. Tiger man // June 9, 2017 at 11:42 am //

    As a parent, I think the safest and wisest thing to do is to keep our children from contact sports until they are older…if at all.

    No matter the assurances from the manufacturer, there is no guarantee that there will NOT be after effects from their participation later in their lives.

    Clearly, not worth the risk.

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