HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) -- The conversation about concussions is changing the game of football for the better. Helmets are the last line of defense against head injuries, but a Virginia Tech professor is putting them first.
The fight's been messy at times as there have been lawsuits against the NFL and the NCAA. There have also been new laws and rules to protect high school athletes.
Concussion have drawn attention from the gridiron to the courtroom
"I've seen a lot of my teammates and a lot of my opponents die over the last few years," said Bill Bergey, a former linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles.
The issue has even made it's way to Capitol Hill.
"I think the big issue here for us and for every player at every level and in every sport as we pointed out here is to make sure they're aware of the issues that come when you have a concussion," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell while speaking before members of Congress.
One Virginia Tech professor is fighting concussions and it's been a battle lasting more than a decade in the laboratory.
Stefan Duma, Ph.D., has been working with the Hokies football team, looking to improve the way helmets can protect against concussions since 2003.
"We've done over 10,000 experiments over the past few years. Just dropping tests. If you think, every single helmet we test 120 times. There's a lot of helmets out there, it's a tremendous amount of effort, but it has a huge impact," said Duma.
Duma developed a helmet ratings system in 2011, evaluating different models and how they protect against concussions, based on lab testing and research done on the field, where sensor technology is used.
"The on-field work gives us exposure. By instrumenting the Virginia Tech football team, we have a very good idea of how often the players are getting hit in the head. What direction. What severity," explained Duma, "The most striking thing was how different the helmets were."
Helmets were originally designed to protect athletes from skull fractures, as older head gear wasn't meant to reduce the risk of concussions.
When evaluating an older helmet on the market, it didn't' take long for Duma to give his opinion, "So this is a one-star helmet. It's the Riddell VSR4. This was the workhorse of helmets, going into the 90s or 2000s. But what people don't realize is that it's 20 years old."
What concerned Duma three years ago is that this old model was widely used throughout football.
"When we came out with our first ratings in 2011, half of Virginia Tech, half of college and half of the NFL had this helmet in 2011," said Duma, "My first phone call was to our team physician and head athletic trainer because I knew our football team had half of them, the VSR4s. And it was a quick conversation. Okay, we're getting rid of these helmets. We're buying five star helmets," recalled Duma.
Manufacturers also responded to the research. In 2011, only one helmet on the market had a five-star rating. Now that number has grown to nine, giving high school coaches in the Valley a better selection.
Chris Dodson, the head football coach at Spotswood High School, said his program has already replaced a majority of the team's helmets.
"Our big key was to get into the same helmet with everybody as much as possible. Now we're at the point where 85 percent are in Riddell 360s. So I think we're using the highest technology helmet that we can use at this point and we're putting people in great equipment. Accidents are going to happen. But you can put them in the safest equipment out there and you can educate them to the best, then you have a chance to eliminate a lot of that," explained Dodson.
In West Virginia, at Moorefield High School, head coach Josh See is using his budget to protect players.
"I took it upon myself that if my kid ever played here. I want them in the best gear. I've taken our hometown boys and I've put them in the best gear that we can afford. And we're up over 40 helmets now. I'm proud of it," said See.
Back in the lab, Duma knows his work isn't done yet. His next priority is studying younger levels of football.
"Right now, we don't know enough about youth brands. We don't understand brain injury in a seven or eight year old. It's really an unknown, what's happening to the developing brain, what levels it takes to cause injury there. We just don't know yet," said Duma.
He is also exploring helmets in other sports, including hockey and lacrosse. As for football, he sees the sport evolving as the concussion debate continues.
"People say, 'Oh, football is going to go away.' I think this is just the next evolution of football. It's not going to go away. It's immensely popular, but the game is changing for the better. Taking away the head impacts. That's good," said Duma.
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