Andy Lowry finally was confronted with the choice: His son, Thomas, was starting to play football at the middle-school level, and there was a new device that might help keep his brain safer.
It looked kind of funny, but in the end, Lowry's concern about his son's safety convinced him to let him strap on a Guardian Cap, a lightweight, padded overlay to regular helmets that promised to cut down the risk of a head injury. It wound up working fine. Lowry then wondered whether he should introduce it to the Columbine High School varsity team he coaches. The decision was easy.
"If I had insisted on my own kid wearing one, there was no way in good conscience I couldn't insist on my team trying them too," Lowry said. Columbine began using them last season.
Now, other high school teams in Colorado and across the nation are trying out the new protective headgear spearheaded by Alpharetta, Ga.-based POC Ventures, the maker of the Guardian Cap.
Why the demand for such a device? Consider:
'¢ According to the Sports Concussion Institute, football players have a 75 percent chance of getting a concussion. Another recent study found that retired NFL players age 50 or older are five times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia and other brain injuries.
'¢ While more than 3 million participate in youth football in the U.S., a study last year by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association found that the participation rate for tackle football has declined by 11 percent in recent years. Many parents, after reading about the danger of concussions, aren't allowing their children to play football.
But manufacturers such as POC Ventures are trying to reverse the trend. A total of 15 high school teams and other youth programs in Colorado are using the waffle iron-looking caps, which can be strapped on over regular helmets. The company claims the force of impact of hits to the head is reduced by as much as 33 percent.
Since last season, Lowry has had the Columbine Rebels wear Guardian Caps in practice but not games. He said concussions and other head injuries were not as prevalent among players who wore them.
"It's hard to put a number on it, but we had quite a few concussions last year — but only one in a Guardian Cap. If we're talking about putting more padding around a kid's head on a football field, I'm all for that," Lowry said. "I mean, it makes sense right?"
About 8,000 Guardian Caps — which sell for $55 — were used by football teams last year, mostly at the high school and youth levels. POC (Protect Our Children) spokesman Matt Si monds said his company expects sales to double this year. The National Federation of State High School Associations gave all sanctioned schools in the country permission to use Guardian Caps in practices and games, but so far most teams use them only in practice. They are not mandatory.
"Coach (Lowry) showed them to us last year and they looked kind of goofy, but we tried them and ended up using them for every practice," said John Lisella, who graduated from Columbine this year and earned a football scholarship to Colorado. "I was never diagnosed with a concussion in high school, but I would get some pretty big headaches every so often, and last year using those caps, I didn't have any."
The Guardian Cap is a one-size-fits-all, 7-ounce shell made of closed-cell material and coated in Lycra. It's the brainchild of Georgia natives Lee and Erin Hanson, whose material sciences company mostly had supplied clients including the U.S. military with protective products, but whose young son's desire to play football concerned them. The couple had a desire to make the sport safer.
"With all of the stories in the press about the long-term damaging effects of hits to the head, I was scared for him to play," Erin Hanson said. "We knew we could make a difference with the soft-shelled technology we had been working with if we could turn it into a removable soft cap to be worn on top of helmets."
The reason the caps are used in practice, but not in games, is partially because players are afraid to stand out individually if they wear them. Also, it's based on statistics. According to studies cited by POC, 62 percent of sports-related injuries at the youth and high school levels happen in practices, not in games, and another study by the Sports Legacy Institute found that 75 percent of football concussions occur in practice.
But shouldn't the other remaining percentage risks for injury be lessened by the use of protective headgear in games too? That's an ongoing debate, and it may have to do with the resistance of official helmet makers to seeing their brand name covered. In the NFL, for example, Riddell is the longtime helmet maker for teams, and only in special circumstances can players wear padding or other equipment.
Lisella said Columbine players had the option to wear Guardian Caps during games last year, but peer pressure was a factor in players not doing so.
Lowry said that likely will stay the case unless every team is mandated by governing bodies to wear additional protective gear in games.
"We've made some good strides recently in making our game safer, and this product has been a reason," he said.