August 28, 2023
While watching a football game in the early 2010s, Per Reinhall was struck by the sound of helmets violently clashing together. The audible cracks of the collisions reverberated through his television and sparked an idea.
“There must be a better way,” Reinhall thought to himself. The University of Washington professor of mechanical engineering knew such impacts were unavoidable in football, but he began to consider ways to mitigate the potential head injuries that resulted.Several years later, Reinhall was approached by Samuel Browd, a pediatric neurosurgeon at UW who was alarmed by the number of children he had to medically retire from sports because of severe concussions.
The two met over coffee, and Reinhall pitched an idea to Browd: creating soft-shell helmets that would more efficiently absorb impacts. They collaborated on rough sketches, which eventually led them to create VICIS, a helmet company founded in 2013.
A decade later, VICIS, which was sold to Schutt in 2020, is making waves. The company’s helmets are used from the youth football ranks all the way up to the pros. Notable NFL players including Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Tua Tagovailoa, Kenny Pickett, George Kittle, Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa and Maxx Crosby wear their helmets. Going into the 2023 season, all 32 NFL teams have ordered VICIS helmets.”
The helmets’ deformable outer shells also give VICIS the flexibility to fine-tune that absorption in specific areas without affecting other locations. That has allowed them to create helmets molded for specific position groups and individuals. For example, the Zero2 Trench was the first helmet specifically designed for offensive and defensive linemen, the Zero2 Matrix QB is made for quarterbacks and the Zero2 Matrix ID is customizable to the shape of a player’s head.
No helmet can completely prevent concussions, but VICIS is one of the industry leaders when it comes to reducing head injuries. According to the NFL and NFLPA, the safer helmet designs that have resulted from the innovations of VICIS and other companies have eliminated between 20 and 25 NFL concussions per year over the last five to seven seasons. Coming off a season in which there were 149 concussions, according to the NFL — an increase from 126 in 2021 — companies must continue exploring ways to evolve their equipment.
“I’ve been doing this since 2001. And, certainly, the whole culture of concussions has changed in the National Football League,” NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer said in a recent Zoom interview. “In order for the number of concussions to change, we had to change the culture of concussions in the way they were looked at, including how the players looked at it.
“Because, in the old days, it’s kind of like, ‘Well, what do you think is going to happen? We’re big men, violent men, playing a violent game. It’s going to happen. ‘We’ve gone from that to awareness of it, to reporting of it, to making sure that the players were reporting their own concussions. …They want to be in the safest helmet they can possibly be in.”
The NFL and NFLPA’s disagreements are common, intense and contentious, but they decided in 2016 they needed to work together. Stemming from an increased focus on concussions in football, biomechanical engineers from the two groups began combining their efforts to conduct testing.
For the laboratory results, they relied on crash-test dummy helmet testing. For the on-field results, they used game cameras to study recordings of plays in which concussions occurred. They compiled data on the forces that caused the concussions, charted it on graphs and compared it to their lab results. Over time, they found that angular acceleration caused concussions at an excessive rate.
“Linear acceleration is front-back, left-right — and that doesn’t seem to cause concussions much in the NFL versus angular or rotational (acceleration),”Mayer said. “It’s that twisting motion that seems to make the biggest difference.”
By then, VICIS had already created its own “Smash Lab” in Seattle for product development, but they adopted the NFL’s stricter standards for testing.
“By using that (knowledge) as a tool during that development cycle, “Neubauer said, “we can basically give the player the best chance to have a product that will mitigate impacts as best as we are currently aware of. To really measure any injuries on the field is really very, very difficult, if not impossible. … Everyone’s a little bit different, so you can’t use these on-field injuries directly to measure helmet performance necessarily because they’re never the exact same player in the exact same scenario.”
VICIS ultimately got the scientific elements down, but a major issue early on was that the helmets were … well, massive. The increased volume made them safer but, while players want to be protected, they also want to look good. And, initially, VICIS struggled to pass what it called the “mirror test.”
“I often use this example: If you built an ice ax that was strong enough to save someone that’s mountaineering, you may never save anyone because it also might be too heavy and no one would actually carry it on their back. And it’s the same way for a football helmet,” Neubauer said. “There might be some methods you could use to better protect the player, but it doesn’t matter if no players are willing to wear it. And we’ve obviously learned that lesson the hard way.”
VICIS reached out to NFL players, equipment managers and owners to gather feedback on not just performance, but also comfort and aesthetics. That helped them strike a balance.
“We really developed the helmets with those guys, and that helped later when we were introducing the helmets because they felt that they were actually part of developing this helmet,” Reinhall said. “Obviously, the marketing was a challenge. We started from scratch. We developed a new helmet company. And so it was like a typical startup. Not only was it a new company, but it was also kind of a new concept. So we had to spread the gospel.”
An issue that remained for VICIS, however, was that it largely priced itself out of the youth and high school football markets. The helmets were safer than their competitors, but they were also considerably more expensive. Despite gaining steam in the NFL, the relatively narrow reach of the company led to it nearly folding in late 2019.That ultimately forced its founders to sell VICIS to Schutt in April 2020.
“It was a sad day to see the company kind of go down and eventually be sold to Schutt,” Reinhall said. “That was due to economics. What’s good for me being the CTO, the technical guy, is that everybody loved the product. And I’m super happy to see that the product lives on the way we developed it and that it’s getting attention and doing well in the markets.”
Although the sale saved the VICIS brand, it still needed a breakthrough to become a major player in the industry, and the company was confident that would come with position-specific helmets. Creating helmets for linemen was the place to start, the group believed, because there are always more of them on the field than in any other position.
But VICIS needed the NFL’s help. The league had been particularly struck by the number of concussions among offensive and defensive linemen. It found that players at those position groups took nearly twice as many impacts as players at any other. And, while those impacts were typically of a lower velocity, the areas in which they occurred were far more repetitive.
To replicate the various hits linemen take most often and to produce a more accurate assessment of the effects of those impacts, the NFL slowed the speed of its helmet-test impacts and also tested the impacts at different locations on the helmet. With that data in hand, VICIS was able to design its Trench helmets, which launched in 2021. As of 2023, they’re rated by the NFL and NFLPA as the safest helmets available.
“The proof is in the numbers,” Mayer said. “VICIS has continuously upgraded its design.”
Last season was a flashpoint for concussions in the NFL.Tagovailoa and Pickett both suffered concussions during games, and the effects were seen by a nationwide audience. In response, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to strengthen the concussion protocols during the season.
“I think the focus has increased for the players, for the public and, frankly, for the coaches, ”Mayer said.
No position in football is more influential, important and expensive than quarterback. They’re the most protected players on the field, but the 2022 season was a reminder that they’re still very much at risk. The NFL had already sent data and impact speeds to manufacturers beforehand, but what happened served as an impetus for VICIS to ramp up its efforts to create a quarterback-specific model.
“When we looked at the increase in quarterback concussions, a lot of those were helmet-to-ground with guys being knocked backward and hitting their heads on the turf,” Mayer said. “When you quantify that, you say, ‘OK, how could you build a helmet that would not eliminate but ameliorate that force?’ What VICIS did is make it linearly more rigid. So, front-to-back, that helmet is more rigid in the way it’s constructed. … And so, the concept is that when you hit the back of your head, less force is thought to be transmitted to the quarterback’s head. And, indeed, it tested out in the lab that way.”
VICIS launched its quarterback helmet this April. Tagovailoa is among the players who’ve switched to it in an effort to lessen the likelihood of concussions.
“As we were discussing new helmets and whatnot, they were talking about that it’s 1 percent better than the helmet that I’m in, ”Tagovailoa told Peter King earlier this month. “Now, OK, you look at 1 percent. That’s not a drastic change from the helmet that I’m in. But then you look at playing on
the field, and I figure that 1 percent better that you got on this play or that play, and eventually it ends up adding up. I’m willing to take my chances with it. I’m definitely going to see what this thing can do.”
Moving forward, VICIS intends to continue developing helmets for specific positions. That’s dependent on the NFL, though, which is working on ways to generate the necessary data. An adjustment this year will be the use of mouthpieces capable of measuring player acceleration.
“We think that’s going to get us to the real holy grail of what’s actually going on when a player’s head is moving,” Mayer said. “It’s attached — like any mouthpiece — to the upper part of the jaw, and we can tell better what’s going on. It’s iterative and changing over time.”