Mississippi State University tackles football concussions, builds safer helmets

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Football is a game of hard hits and fast plays. It’s also a sport that can lead to serious injuries, including concussions that cause brain damage.

That’s why one Mid-South university is on a mission to build the games’ safest helmet ever created.

It was Friday night and homecoming, which means it was time for the Collierville Dragons to shine. They were looking for big plays and big hits. They wanted a win, and better yet, they wanted a “W” without a player getting hurt.

“It is a sport that’s obviously contact and we want to make sure that these guys have the best protection as possible,” Coach Mike O’Neill said.

Injury can come during a game or practice. Collierville High’s booster club invested $15,000 in helmets this year. They purchased the Riddell Revo Speed, the industry rates it “5 star,” the best on the market.

Assistant principal and former coach, Dr. Dan Holcomb, says it’s money well spent.

“I’m sure that once parents see this story they’ll be happy to know that we’re doing the best we can to protect our kids,” said Holcomb.

WREG traveled to Mississippi State University in Starkville to see what can happen during a hard hit. It’s why you want the best possible helmet. Concussions are a concern at every level, from the pros to high school to the young children playing Pop Warner.

“This is a drop from the rear of the helmet at a 48 inch drop height,” said student Alston Rush, as he got ready to test a helmet.

Rush is among the Mississippi State University students and faculty trying to build a helmet that is as close to concussion-proof as possible. Helmets are put on a test dummy and positioned to take blows from different heights and speeds.

What they’re doing at MSU is groundbreaking because most other research focuses on how the helmet holds up to outside forces. Here, they’re focused on how the brain is affected inside this helmet.

MSU is looking at how the brain reacts during each kind of strike, and building the helmet around those factors.

“This simulation here is actually a simulation of a rear impact which is a worst case type of impact for an athlete in football,” Dr. Raj Prabhu said.

The mechanical engineering department built a helmet to keep the shock away from the brain. The lining is the same material NASA uses in space equipment. The shell, Kevlar, is the same stuff lightweight bullet proof vests are made of.

They researched how animals like the ram survive hit after hit without suffering brain damage to complete the design.

Dr. Mark Horstemeyer said, “When the wave comes through the helmet after that first strike, before it gets to the second strike of the head of the brain, it’s going to go through this and be mitigated.”

Several NCAA and NFL teams are scheduled to test the helmets on the field this coming spring. It could be years before the technology makes a debut during any high school’s Friday night lights. Collierville coaches and parents are content knowing their players are wearing the best of what’s available now.

Concussions from sports-related injuries are a big problem in sports, especially among young players. In Tennessee in 2012, the last year records were available, WREG found out there were a total of 970 hospital visits for sports related concussions, from kids ages 14 to 18.