Josh Kendall

They’re custom and cool: 2 Gamecocks trying new helmets

It seems like everyone who is not playing football is talking about CTE, but for the people in the locker room it comes up a lot less often.

“We live in the moment,” South Carolina linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. “Those things happen. You just have to be prepared for anything that happens. It’s not really something that comes up.”

That doesn’t mean they’re not doing anything about it. Allen-Williams is one of two Gamecocks who will be wearing a custom-padded, prototype helmet from Riddell this year.

“It was the kind of thing where they said, ‘Do you want to try this?’ and I jumped at it,” said wide receiver Bryan Edwards, the other test case for the 2017 season.

CTE is the shorthand for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that has been linked by multiple academic studies to football. One of the most recent, and most alarming studies, of CTE was published in the Journal of American Medical Association and stated that 88 percent of 177 brains donated from deceased football from every level of the game from high school to the NFL showed signs of CTE.

“When you’re on the field playing the game, it doesn’t really come to your mind, but when you see all the research that’s being done and all the steps being taken to help, you think about it a lot,” Edwards said. “But at the end of the day you just want to play the game.”

In order to help players keep playing the game more safely, Riddell is rolling out a Precision Fit system that uses 3D scanning technology to customize the padding inside a player’s helmets. The custom padding can fit into the shell of any of the Riddell helmet shells. Both Allen-Williams and Edwards wear Riddell’s SpeedFlex shell.

“It’s definitely a player safety, brain, concussion issue,” said Larry Waters, South Carolina’s director of football equipment operations, “but don’t be mistaken, it’s not going to prevent a concussion.”

Riddell isn’t claiming that but believes its newest addition to the marketplace could help.

“With every new helmet technology introduction, we certainly expect that it will perform better than the previous technology,” said Erin Griffin, the company’s vice president of marketing and communications.

Allen-Williams and Edwards had their heads measured by a computer scanning program on an iPad last fall in a process that took about 45 minutes, Waters said. Riddell will equip “several hundred” players in college and the NFL with the helmets this year, Griffin said, and the company hopes the database of measurements from all players will help them design even safer helmets in the future, said Patrick Friel, the product manager for hard goods at Riddell.

“I think it’s just the beginning for what we can do with that information,” Friel said. “We think about having a huge database of several thousand athletes’ heads, you can use that information to help inform your design and development of future shells, you could use that information to better understand how each athlete is being fit and use that information to better design a stock helmet.”

The Gamecocks’ helmets arrived in time for spring practice, and Sept. 2 will be the first time anyone has worn the final version of the helmet in a game. Every Power 5 school had the option of purchasing a limited number of the helmets from Riddell this year at a coast of $1,700 each, which is three times more expensive than a traditional Riddell SpeedFlex helmet. NFL players Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Carson Wentz and Kirk Cousins also will wear Riddell’s new helmet this year.

South Carolina purchased six helmets total, one in white, black and garnet for both players.

“It’s a real nice deal, protects you from concussions, nice and soft. I love it,” Edwards said. “It just fits to you, every curve in your head, every bump.”

Both Edwards and Allen-Williams joked that they were dismayed to learn exactly how large their heads actually are during the measuring process.

Unlike traditional helmets, which often are adjusted for each game by adding or removing air from the interior padding, the Precision Fit helmets never need to be adjusted, and there’s another custom touch that the players like and that fans might notice if they squint hard enough. Allen-Williams’ and Edwards’ helmets each have a small, silver decal on the back that has a representation of their signatures, and both players will get to take the helmets as mementos of their playing careers when they are done with the Gamecocks.

“It feels a lot more comfortable to me than the regular helmets. I like it a lot,” Allen-Williams said. “They are trying to move toward safety. With all the stuff about CTE coming out, having a helmet like this that is made to your head is really nice.”

Making helmets safer

A look at Riddell's Precision-Fit system:

▪  A scanner is used to create a 3-D image of a player’s head.

▪  Then a helmet's interior padding is custom fit to a player's head.

▪  The helmets are designed to be more comfortable and provide better performance.

▪  Riddell began using Precision-Fit at the college level last season and is expanding with more NCAA and NFL teams this year.

▪  Helmet manufacturers are trying to prevent more concussions.

▪  Schutt, Riddell’s chief rival, has a new helmet design called the F7, which features two flexible exterior plates designed to disperse the force of head impacts.