SEQUIM — Sequim football players are more than familiar with the mushroom-wrapped helmets NFL players are wearing on their helmets during training camp this summer, part of an ongoing safety experiment the league hopes will lead to a reduction in head injuries.
They’re called Guardian Caps, and are now mandatory for all 32 NFL teams through the second preseason game — the time when the league says head injuries are most prevalent.
Worn for years
Many Wolves football players have worn the caps for years at football practices, and Sequim quarterback Lars Wiker wore a Guardian Cap in games during the 2021 spring football season.
Sequim boosters also have raised funds in previous seasons to purchase a number of Vicis helmets lined with specialized protective layers built to mitigate the impact of bone-crushing hits that cause concussions.
“There’s a density of exposure, and a density of injury, at the beginning of training camp, and the competition committee has been looking for ways to change that,” Jeff Miller, executive vice president for NFL player health and safety, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The league said laboratory research indicates the 12-ounce Guardian Caps result in at least a 10 percent reduction in severity of impact to a player’s brain. It says that number climbs to at least 20 percent if both players involved in a collision are wearing them.
Miller said mitigating those forces “will have a cumulative effect for the betterment of health and safety of the player.”
The Wolves program suffered a number of head injuries in the 2006-2010 time frame before the severity of concussions was more widely known.
Running back Adrien Gault experienced several concussions before one suffered in an October 2006 game led to bleeding in his brain, a coma and, years later, recurring headaches and memory loss.
Quarterback Drew Rickerson was blindsided and concussed in a 2008 game, and received what was described as substandard medical care in the aftermath of the injury.
Other Sequim players in that era who suffered concussions and their parents said medical personnel approved their return to play too quickly.
After a decade-plus of education on head injuries and surrounding issues, the game has changed somewhat.
A state law, known as the Lystedt Law and named after Zackery Lystedt, who sustained permanent brain damage during a high school football game in 2006, requires education for coaches and parents, the immediate removal of any athlete suspected of having sustained a concussion, and written authorization from a “licensed health care provider trained in the evaluation and management of concussion” before an athlete can return.
Changes adopted for most teams at nearly all levels include little live tackling in practices; ejections for ferocious, once-celebrated, helmet-to-helmet hits; and radical changes to kickoffs designed to discourage returns. Those ideas would have been dismissed as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.
Jean Rickerson, inspired by her son’s concussion ordeal, launched sportsconcussions.org to provide concussion information for athletes, coaches and parents, brought in a former Seahawks doctor well versed in concussions for a Sequim forum and held baseline concussion testing to test normal brain functions before seasons.
“Changing the game to make it as safe as possible is imperative, and there’s room for improvement without fundamentally altering its core,” said Rickerson, who allowed her son to return to the sport.
That’s the attitude needed to see this sport rebound from a disturbing loss in youth participation after reaching a high in 2008 — and some of that dip has to be related to the link between football and brain trauma.
Some believe the Guardian Caps could do more harm than good, creating a false sense of security.
“Adding weight to a helmet can make things worse for the brain when it comes to rotational impacts,” said Chris Nowinski, of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, who previously served as a co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
“Adding size to the helmet does the same thing. It’s very difficult to re-create this in a lab. We aren’t sure if this will be a net positive or a net negative.”
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, has been found in the brains of more than 300 former players, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Junior Seau, Andre Waters and Jovan Belcher are just some of the players who have died by suicide and later were determined to have the degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head.
Some NFL coaches do understand the moment: Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who is a member of the competition committee, told his players in a video released by the NFL that he is “morally obligated” to keep them safe and believes they’re useful.
And Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich agrees, saying the recommendation of the Guardian Caps was an “easy move.”
“I wouldn’t say they’re aesthetically pleasing, and I think we look a little goofy,” said Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert. “But they’re there for good reason. They did studies with them. Anything to keep us safer, why not do it?
“Obviously, you only get one brain. May as well keep it as best you can.”
Sports reporter/columnist Michael Carman can be contacted at mcarman@ peninsuladailynews.com.