As an offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers in their glory years, Steve Wallace knew plenty about the dizzying pain of concussions. So when he got clobbered by a linebacker in 1994, he recalls, he expected the familiar blinding aftershock. Instead, Wallace walked away uninjured because he was wearing an ungainly foam helmet protector called a ProCap. "I was just waiting for that buzz, that pain you get, but it didn't happen," he says.
During a football season marked by head injuries and a quest to better protect players, the technology that spared Wallace may be poised for a comeback. Its inventor, a designer named Bert Straus, has incorporated the ProCap concept into a helmet he calls the Gladiator, with three layers of protection instead of the current two. The Gladiator has padding on the outside, then hard plastic, then more padding inside to distribute the energy of impact. The face mask is mounted on flexible plastic to absorb blows. "The answer is not to keep making these things harder," Straus says, smiling as he bashes his knee with one of his helmets.
The original ProCap was a curiosity worn in the early 1990s by a handful of players who had suffered concussions. It was a tough polyurethane foam shell stuck to a standard hard helmet with Velcro. Players thought it looked ridiculous, so it never caught on. "You wanted to look cool out there," says Mark Kelso, who as a safety for the Buffalo Bills wore the ProCap because of concussions. Kelso swallowed his pride and discovered, he says, that it worked well, adding years to his career. He is an investor in Protective Sports Equipment, a Pennsylvania company part-owned by Straus that made both the ProCap and today's Gladiator, now streamlined so it no longer seems like a prop from The Jetsons.
As an independent designer, Straus has worked on everything from dental equipment to streetcars. He designed the ProCap in the 1980s after seeing players carted from the field on stretchers. He calls the Gladiator a passion, driven by the conviction that concussions can be stopped by abandoning rock-hard helmets. The National Football League says players can wear the Gladiator if it is approved by a national standards group. Straus says he's seeking approval. The real prize, though, is the much larger market for college and youth teams, which often take their cues from the pros.
One potential roadblock is a claim by some specialists that the foam shell, because blows are absorbed rather than glancing off of it, may transfer the energy of a hit from a player's head to his neck. Straus insists the theory is not backed by evidence, and Wallace and Kelso say that's contrary to anything they experienced in years of using the ProCap. "I never had another concussion when I wore it," Wallace says. "I want the guys out there to know about this."
A soft-sided helmet called the Gladiator
Players say it can reduce concussions
If pros use it, younger players may follow