IOWA CITY — Eighty Iowa football players this spring sat in a chair in the Hansen Performance Center and waited patiently to have the shape of their heads scanned.
Everyone’s head is different, so, in a proactive move to stay at the forefront of player safety, the University of Iowa has moved to a custom-fit helmet from its longtime supplier Riddell.
Over the last two seasons, 15 Hawkeyes have tried the new custom-fit helmet, according to Iowa equipment manager Greg Morris.
“The kids who have had them on to this point,” Morris said, “I don’t think we’ve even had a headache.”
That list includes “impact” positions. Last fall, linebacker Josey Jewell, fullback Brady Ross and tight end Noah Fant were among the players to test the new helmets.
“I went to the kids who had them on this year and said, ‘If I took that off you, would you wear something else?’” Morris asked. “The answer was ‘Absolutely not.’ That was everybody. That’s not a 50-50 deal. Brady Ross said there’s no reason to put anything else on my head.”
Iowa will have 80 players in Riddell’s custom-fit helmets — called Precision-Fit — this fall. They’re roughly $1,000 each, with each player being fitted for game and practice helmets. These 80 players had their heads scanned in December. Incoming freshmen will not have the custom-fit. As it stands now, the scan for the fit and the turnaround in manufacturing is too short of a window from June to August. So, instead of rushing things, the freshmen will be in the “air” cushioned helmets.
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For Riddell, air fit is on the way out. The company is pushing ahead with custom, something that Riddell has been involved with since 2002.
“With Riddell, our goal is to give a fully customized scanned helmet with electronics in it by 2022,” said Dave Baron, Riddell key account manager. “That’s our road map. It’s taken from the launch of the Revolution helmet in 2002 to now to get to that point. There’s a lot of painstaking trail and error, but we’re excited with the equipment that’s coming forward.”
As it stands now, the 3D scans take about three minutes. It’s a scanning device attached to a tablet. Players are scanned with hoods on. The scanner doesn’t like hair, no matter how it’s cut.
“The 3D image picks up all the measurements of a head and all of the abnormalities of the head,” Baron said. “Then, we build the foam around the head. That’s pretty much how it works. We can give a player a fully customized helmet with no air needed for fitting.”
This gets Iowa away from the air-fitted helmets. Riddell really means “custom” here. The helmet is locked on. There’s no forward rotation or side-to-side rotation.
“We’re convinced right now that this is the right thing to do, and it can be better for everybody’s health and well-being,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
There is a convenience factor moving away from air. Morris said it’s not uncommon to adjust the fit of at least a half dozen helmets during a pregame warmup. Temperature and sweat affected the fit of the helmet. So far, those problems haven’t shown up with the custom-padding.
“Players know that it’s theirs, that they can’t get anything that will fit them better than that,” Morris said. “Noah Fant looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’ve never felt better playing the game of football than with this helmet on.
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“If I had two or three guys of the 12 who had them on last fall, I’d better look into that. If you’re going to move the game of football forward with equipment and this idea is not working with three of our 12 — 30 percent — that’s a problem. We’re at 100 percent in agreement it’s the right thing.”
These helmets do have impact-sensoring devices. The problem with those at Kinnick Stadium is the wireless traffic that bounces around between Kinnick and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
“We want this to work really, really, really badly,” Morris said. “There’s a lot of wireless traffic. Between transmission and receiver, the signal hasn’t been able to get strong enough to capture that with everything else that’s floating.”
Iowa has had positive results with the sensors when the Hawkeyes have practiced inside. The gameday results do show up, but it’s not real-time information. That wireless lag still is being worked on.
Obviously, there are no guarantees that a helmet will prevent a head injury. There are probably a lot of college football programs in the country with coach-parent-son-player relationships. Morris’ sons, James and Jake, played college football. James was an all-Big Ten linebacker for the Hawkeyes. Jake played at Coe.
“This is my true deepest belief, we had two kids play college football,” Morris said. “If they were playing today, this is what I’d insist they have on their heads.”
Next fall, the Riddell Precision-Fit will have 80 case studies at the University of Iowa. The 12-player sample size has worked so far. If that holds, perhaps the custom helmet can advance player safety.
“If we can get through this fall with those helmets on and no concussions, we’ve got a scoop.” Morris said.
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