When more than 900 Omaha Public Schools football players hit the gridiron this fall, they’ll have a new piece of equipment: a high-tech helmet that officials hope will be another line of defense in the battle against head injuries.
Every OPS high school player — from freshmen to varsity starters — will be outfitted with new Riddell Speedflex helmets that could help coaches and athletic trainers monitor the severity of the hits suffered by student-athletes.
Each of OPS’s seven high schools is being provided 130 helmets. At a cost of $400 each, the price tag equals $364,000. OPS Superintendent Mark Evans said Susie Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation paid for the helmets.
“We’re truly very fortunate and blessed to have so many great people out there that believe in the Omaha Public Schools and our kids,” said OPS Athletic Director Steve Eubanks. “This helmet is a step in the right direction to provide information that will help keep the athletes hopefully safer.”
Other schools said they’re waiting to see how the relatively new technology — which comes with a hefty price compared with some traditional helmets — shakes out. They want to know if it can help players and coaches better identify the bone-jarring collisions that could cause concussions.
“We are not yet planning to implement this change,” Kara Perchal, a spokeswoman for the Elkhorn Public Schools, wrote in an email. “At this time, we don’t feel there’s been sufficient research/evidence into them to justify the cost.”
From peewee football leagues through the NFL, there’s been a growing awareness and concern over the short- and long-term effects of concussions and head trauma — especially on developing brains.
In Nebraska, some 12,804 boys and girls participated in youth football in 2015-16.
Creighton Prep is in the process of buying 200 of the same helmets, said Max Huerter, the school’s director of alumni relations. They should be in place once football practice starts later this summer. The school is hoping the cost will be covered by fundraising.
Creighton Prep’s decision to buy the helmets was triggered in part by a brain injury a student suffered last year in a game Creighton Prep played against Papillion-La Vista.
After a hit, Papillion-La Vista player Brandon Steburg felt dizzy and disoriented and lost consciousness. He ended up spending six days in a medically induced coma and had part of his skull removed because of the head injury.
“We all know and have heard everywhere that it’s a concern for the parents,” Huerter said of concussions and brain injuries, “so hopefully the helmet will make them feel a little more comfortable.”
Bellevue West High School also has 12 of the helmets.
The helmets are outfitted with the Riddell InSite Impact Response System, special sensor pads embedded inside the helmet that are supposed to monitor and register the force and severity of hits, Eubanks said. The sensors are linked to a hand-held device that coaches and athletic trainers on the sidelines can use to track the number and force of hits suffered by each player.
Coaches, players and medical staff already are trained to spot the signs and symptoms of concussions, Eubanks said. But the sensors can send out an alert if a hit was particularly hard, spurring a coach or athletic trainer to make sure that player gets checked out.
“Concussions have been around since the game has been played, but we’re learning so much more around head injuries, how to treat them, what is prudent care for student-athletes,” Eubanks said.
Other high school and college football teams have begun using the same helmets and sensor technology, including the University of Texas and Shawnee Mission schools in Kansas.
Officials caution that for players there is no magic bullet to eliminate the risks of concussion. The helmets can neither prevent nor diagnose concussions.
“There’s no helmet that can or would prevent a concussion, but it provides data that helps with the assessment of the athlete,” Eubanks said.
In a 2016 World-Herald article, Dr. Kody Moffatt, director of the pediatric sports medicine program at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, said football helmets were designed to protect against skull fractures and brain bleeds — and they do a good job of it, he said — but engineers are a long way from creating helmets that can reduce the forces that cause a concussion.
Nebraska’s Concussion Awareness Act, adopted in 2012, requires coaches to immediately remove from the game any athlete suspected of having a concussion. Athletes can’t return to the field until they get written clearance from a health care professional and from parents. It applies to public and parochial schools and also to recreation and club teams.
In OPS, coaches will receive training on how to use the new helmets and the data system during the first week of August, before football camps start on Aug. 7. This is a test year, Eubanks said, and staff will have to figure out what kind of data to collect and analyze.
The helmets previously used by high school players will be passed down to middle schoolers, he said. Helmets are typically replaced in seven-year cycles, and a high-quality helmet can be bought for between $250 and $300, Eubanks said.
Millard uses Riddell helmets but doesn’t plan to switch over to the models with the InSite sensor system, a spokeswoman said.
In a statement, Kathi Wieskamp, the director of athletics and activities for the Lincoln Public Schools, said the district is looking into the helmets and the research behind them.
“We also have questions of maintenance and upkeep beyond initial purchase as helmets have a limited life cycle,” she said. “This is a fairly new product, and new helmet designs continue to be developed by multiple manufacturers.”
Eubanks said OPS is grateful for the donation, and the ability to test out a new technology that’s generating some buzz in the sports world.
“We’re so blessed to receive this gift, to have this opportunity,” he said. “And we’re very excited to see how the helmet works out and what coaches and trainers think.”