Sunday July 29, 2012

CANAAN, Conn. -- The right helmet was the difference between Dylan Moody playing football or picking another sport last fall.

Moody's father, Russ, a youth football coach and former Taconic High School player, was willing to spend more than $300 to ensure that his son, then a sophomore center for the Braves, had the newest helmet from Schutt, an Illinois-based manufacturer that provides a majority of the helmets for the NFL.

The Moodys were saved the $300 expense when Taconic bought the helmet Dylan's father thought could best reduce the risk of a concussion.

It was one of about a dozen such helmets that Taconic coach Vinny Barbarotta was able to secure for the season. He said he tries to give them mainly to linemen and linebackers, players who are at a greater risk for heavy contact.

"We have got to put our kids in equipment that is utilizing the best technology," Russ Moody said. "I've been blessed with my son being in programs that pay attention to these things. Especially last year. If he had not received a helmet that was satisfactory for me, then no, he would not have played."

New technology is playing a key role as concussion awareness has increased in football.

Helmets have come a long way from the early 1900s, when a loose leather covering was the best you could get. Today's helmets fit tightly against the head, with more padding than ever before.

Ken Schopp and his family have seen that evolution firsthand through their family business, Stadium System Inc. in Canaan, Conn., just across the state line from Berkshire County.

Schopp oversees 85 employees who specialize in reconditioning athletic equipment, particularly football helmets. Stadium System does reconditioning for Berkshire County's youth and high school football programs, including Taconic's.

"The stigma attached to wearing a football helmet in 1915 was unbelievable," Schopp said. "Nobody wore football helmets, and the only person wearing a helmet was one that either had an existing injury or was recovering from an injury."

At the company's 70,000-square-foot facility last week, Schopp's staff was busy preparing helmets for schools and colleges across the region for the upcoming season.

In addition to repairing any damage, cleaning all parts and having 22 people inspect the helmets, Stadium also performs on a sampling of them a test established by the National Operating Com mittee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

Schopp said some of the most important innovations he's seen in helmet technology relate to the size of the helmet and the padding used between the shell and the user's head. In the industry, that distance is called "standoff," and it's bigger than ever.

Schopp said he thinks one way to reduce concussion risks is to make helmets as big as beach balls and provide even more standoff.

"That would look pretty weird out there," he said. "But if everybody wore them, after maybe a generation, it would be accepted."

Helmet-fitting also is crucial, Schopp said.

Many helmets nowadays are fitted to the individual user by applying air to the inside of the helmets to make them snug on the head and provide the most protection.

Of course, just getting a helmet loaded with bells and whistles isn't the perfect solution. Players still need to practice good tackling form and avoid leading with the helmet, like a missile.

Schopp said it's also important to take care of a helmet during the season, comparing it to the way you care for a new car. He said teams need a coach, trainer or equipment manager who knows how to keep helmets in working order.

"Somebody owns this helmet, and it's up to the owner and/or user to do a degree of due diligence during the football season," he said.

Helmet tips

Ken Schopp, CEO of Stadium Sys tem Inc. -- a Connecticut sporting-goods company that reconditions athletic equipment -- offers these tips for maintaining football helmets during the season:

n Wash your helmet regularly. Helmets are all plastic and can be a breeding ground for bacteria.

n Make sure your helmet always fits properly. It could lose air during the season and not fit as tightly anymore. If it feels loose, get more air put in.

n Keep an eye out for broken or damaged parts such as chin straps, jaw pads or facemasks and get them fixed right away.