“How do we minimize those risks and still let them play the sport that they love?”
That was the question posed by Andy Connor, whose son Patrick is an offensive lineman on the football team at Bothell High School, just outside Seattle, Washington.
“Every time I see [Patrick] on the field, I’m worried something might happen,” Andy said. “It’s just part of the reality of the game that they’re playing, and the risks that are involved.”
“I feel better with that helmet on his head,” he said.
Connor is referring to the VICIS Zero1 helmet,ranked by the NFL the as the top-performing helmet of 2017. It was Patrick’s Christmas gift from his parents a year ago.
“[Dad] told me it was going to help prevent concussions and help prevent injuries,” Patrick said.
The Zero1 generated a lot of buzz this past year when star players like Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and the Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith not only used the helmet. But Smith and Wilson didn't just wear the helmet — they invested in it.
Eighteen out of the NFL’s 32 teams currently have at least one player wearing the helmet this season. Also part of the VICIS Coalition is former Dallas Cowboy Roger Staubach — also an investor — and former San Francisco 49er Jerry Rice.
VICIS CEO Dave Marver co-founded the company as a startup in 2013 with experts in neurosurgery and mechanical engineering from the University of Washington.
“We thought there was an opportunity to make a difference,” Marver said.
It has taken his team years of testing using both linear and rotational force to get to the design they’ve landed on now.
What’s unique to the Zero1, Marver says, is a multilayered approach to protection. The helmet is made with a collapsible outer shell which covers a layer of vertical columns composed of a proprietary material that compress to absorb shock from a hit.
“This is designed to endure thousands of collisions,” Marver says, pushing on the flexible outer shell. “It bounces back each time, and the whole process is invisible to the naked eye.”
The Zero1 recently came down in price, from $1500 down to $950, which is still almost four times as much as the NFL’s number two ranked helmet, the Schutt Air XP Pro VTD II. Is the Zero1 that much safer?
Arthur Maerlender with the Brain Injury Alliance of Nebraska and a professor in the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said the verdict is still out. But, he added that any parent looking for fool-proof equipment to eliminate concussions in their son or daughter will be out of luck.
“We’re not able to say, ‘This is good, you’re never going to get a concussion with this helmet,’” Maerlender said. “That’s just not going to happen.”
Instead, Maerlender said, one of the best things parents can do is to make sure their child athletes are removed from playing and taken to see a doctor after its suspected they may have suffered a concussion.
The NFL states on its helmet ranking poster that any advantage the Zero1 had over the 13 other helmets in the "top-performing-group" is statistically insignificant. The independent Virginia tech STAR helmet rating system — widely considered the industry standard — has yet to test the Zero1 because it hasn't been publicly available until recently.
VICIS maintains their research and design will only continue to improve and that the cost will only go down.
“Like a lot of new technologies, it's expensive at first,” Marver said when asked about the cost.
For the Connor family, the high cost wasn’t a deterrent. Andy Connor felt that having the top-ranked helmet was a no-brainer.
“I couldn't really make the decision not to do it knowing what could happen if I didn't," Connor said.