Football helmet joins fight vs. head injuries
Alarmed by concussions on the athletic fields, ex-Harvard quarterback aims for a game-changing high-tech helmet — to mixed reviews
Vin Ferrara’s first brush with concussions was in the seventh grade, when a head injury ended his season in youth football. He endured lesser hits to the head as he ascended football’s ranks, his career culminating as star quarterback for Harvard University in the 1990s.
But it was not until years later, as he was finishing medical school, that Ferrara saw sports concussions in a new light. He was watching an old clip of a notorious hit on hockey star Eric Lindros, whose stellar NHL career was undermined by a series of concussions.
“I literally stood up and said, ‘This is ridiculous! They need to do something about this,’ ” Ferrara recalled on seeing the Lindros hit. “Then I started to think that maybe I should do something about it.”
The result is Xenith LLC, a company Ferrara started to make high-tech helmets to minimize the possibility of concussions in football players. Conventional helmets rely on foam padding, but Ferrara came up with the idea of packing the inside of the helmet with air-filled disc-shaped pads that act as shock absorbers. When the helmet is struck, the shock absorbers compress and release air, and then quickly reinflate. This has the effect of deflecting energy away from a player’s skull.
“It’s basically similar to the way pneumatic shock absorbers work on a car,” Ferrara said.
Each Xenith helmet has 12 to 18 shock absorbers installed at precise locations that the company determined by conducting thousands of lab tests that simulated hits from virtually every possible direction.
“In this helmet, I haven’t even had a headache or anything from a couple of big hits that I had during the season,” said New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty, one of some two dozen NFL players who wear the Xeniths.
Xenith’s target markets are high school and college programs — players from Notre Dame, Ohio State University, and several dozen other colleges use its helmets, as do athletes in thousands of US high schools.
“We’ve really cut down on concussions since we started using Xenith helmets. It’s the best move I’ve made in 36 years as a coach,” said John Papas, football coach at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, a private school in Cambridge.
Debilitating concussions have become a dominant topic in sports — both professional and amateur — as more evidence emerges of the long-term damage athletes suffer from vicious or repeated hits to the head. This month, the autopsy results of former NFL All-Pro Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012, revealed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease linked to head trauma.
The National Football League, meanwhile, is being sued by several thousand former players who charge that the organization suppressed information about the long-term effects of concussions and related injuries.
Among student athletes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, 173,300 youths a year seek emergency-room treatment for concussions or similar injuries from sports or recreational activities.
Ferrara suffered his own knocks as a student athlete but nonetheless was the starting quarterback for Harvard in 1994 and 1995. He then went to medical school at Columbia University, only to realize he was less interested in practicing medicine and more drawn to the business of health care. That idea further took shape after he watched the Lindros hit, when Ferrara decided to start a company to manufacture a safer sports helmet.
“It was really upsetting to watch an elite athlete get knocked out of his profession by something that seemed like it shouldn’t be happening,” Ferrara recalled. “From that moment on, I was hooked on the idea of making a better helmet.”
He moved back to Boston and set about starting Xenith, now located in Lowell.
The idea for the shock absorbers came from an ordinary enough moment: One day, he came across a plastic bottle of nasal rinse in his medicine cabinet and studied its simple mechanics. The bottle had bellows that compressed easily when Ferrara squeezed lightly, but became increasingly rigid the harder he pushed. The more squeezes, the more that building air pressure boosted the plastic’s resistance to outside force.
From that, Ferrara extrapolated that a similar system inside a football helmet would give the player a graduated level of protection from hits large and small. He actually used his squirt bottle for demonstrations, which were convincing enough that Ferrara swayed Cleveland Cavaliers NBA owner Dan Gilbert, NFL legend Nick Buoniconti, and others to invest $10 million in Xenith.
“Xenith’s helmets are the most innovative that I’ve seen in years,” said Buoniconti, a former Patriots and Miami Dolphins star who later co-hosted HBO’s “Inside the NFL.”
Working with researchers at the University of Ottawa, Ferrara spent several years perfecting his design, with the company’s first product, the X1, hitting the market in 2009.
Ferrara recently stepped down as chief executive to focus on product development, handing the reins to John Duerden, a former Reebok president and early Xenith investor.
In 2011, Xenith developed a more advanced model, the X2, which retails for about $220. The company also has a smaller line of batting helmets for baseball players.
The company’s sales are approaching $20 million and 100,000 units per year — about a 7 percent share of the US market.
Despite its reception among players and coaches, Xenith’s helmets are not at the top of class for protection. Each year, Virginia Tech performs a widely followed test that assess a football helmet’s ability to reduce the risk of concussion among players. The X1 received four stars and the X2 three stars, while three foam-padded helmets from other makers got five — the highest score,
“Xenith’s system shows a lot of promise from an engineering standpoint, but I think there’s some room for improvement in their overall helmet design,” said Virginia Tech researcher Stefan Duma, who compiles the ratings by subjecting helmets to dozens of simulated hits.
Duma said that both traditional foam padding and Xenith’s shock absorbers can help protect athletes, but that variables such as helmet shape and material selection are also critical.
A Boston University neurologist, Dr. Robert Cantu, a nationally recognized expert on traumatic brain injuries, said there is no evidence that any one helmet is better at preventing concussions.
“I think that Xenith’s technology of energy attenuation using air shock absorbers is innovative, but there are no on-the-field trials of football helmets that have substantiated that one system is better,” said Cantu, who is also vice president of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
Though he disagreed with the Virginia Tech rating methods, Ferrara said that Xenith has since tweaked its helmets and hopes they will earn five-star ratings in the next round of testing.
The entrepreneur so believes in his technology that his three football-playing sons — an 11-year-old and two 8-year-old twins — use Xeniths.
“This is a very personal thing for me, for sure,” Ferrara said.