BOSTON – At around 10:30 p.m., while driving on Interstate 95 North with his two sons Skylar, 15, and Shawn, 6, Shawn Springs hit a parked car.
Everyone walked away without injuries. The safety of Shawn’s car seat, designed to absorb and dissipate energy simultaneously, prompted his father’s thinking.
“If it can protect that well with car seats, maybe, just maybe, it can protect that well with other products,” Springs said.
Springs, a Pro-Bowl cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins, and New England Patriots, took the accident as the impetus to start Windpact, his corporation that makes force-reducing helmet padding for all sports and professions — including cycling, equestrian, and the military.
“Anybody who wears a helmet, we can sell to them,” Springs said.
After 13 years in the National Football League, Springs retired from football in 2009. The Seattle Seahawks drafted him third overall in 1997. He played there for seven years before joining the Washington Redskins for five, then the New England Patriots for his last year.
He ended his career with 33 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles, 8 1/2 sacks, and, by his estimate, 10 to 15 concussions.
Four were diagnosed.
“The longer you play, the technology became better, the game became faster,” Springs said in a phone interview. In 2005, he says the league started to address head injuries with more fervor.
This coincides with Dr. Bennet Omalu’s study on the brain of former NFL lineman Mike Webster, leading to a new diagnosis: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Dr. Robert Stern, director of clinical research for the Boston University CTE Center, saw CTE was a bigger problem than first imagined when the center diagnosed Tom McHale’s brain with the disease in 2008.
McHale, a nine-year pro, played defensive end and never had a reported concussion. His wife, Lisa McHale, contacted the center thinking McHale’s brain would be a control – a brain that went through football and did not develop CTE.
“As a lineman, every play of every game and every practice, you are hitting your head, and so there is this type of sub-concussive trauma,” Stern said. “We did not really think about that at that point.”
After McHale’s diagnosis, the center received brains from players of other sports, and those who never played professionally.
“What we are learning,” Stern said, “is the total exposure to these repetitive hits, and perhaps starting off early, when the brain is going through this vulnerable period of development, seems to be the greatest risks for later-life neurodegenerative disease.”
Head injuries are nothing new to sports. Both the NFL and the National Hockey League are in the middle of lawsuits with former players, who are seeking damages for negligence regarding the long-term issues of traumatic brain injuries. Both the NFL and NHL deny the claims made in the suits.
If concussions, Stern said, are the tip of the iceberg, “what about all of those other hits that don’t result in concussion, that happen much, much more frequently, and that seem to be the big underlying issue when it comes to CTE?”
A grant from the National Institutes of Health is funding the center’s new research, the Diagnose CTE Project. The CTE Center is working with the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center in Las Vegas, Nevada; the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona; and NYU Medical School to diagnose CTE while athletes are alive.
To get his technology ready for sale, Springs approached Jeff Champagne and his team at engineering company MPR — Mandil, Panoff, and Rockwell.
Champagne is the director of business development at MPR. Craig Mauch is the director of product design. Their jobs are to take products pitched to MPR – like Springs’s helmet padding – and get them ready for sale.
The padding uses Crash Cloud technology: Impact Vents to dissipate energy and Wind Springs to allow air an escape through 1/32-inch holes. The design and utility are patent protected.
“You would be shocked at how many engineers it takes to make a hole in a piece of plastic,” Champagne said in an interview at his Chelmsford office. “If it is done incorrectly, it breaks down completely.”
Right now, the technology is available in girls’ and women’s lacrosse helmets sold through Hummingbird Sports — a lacrosse gear site — for $139 at most retailers. According to Hummingbird’s site, the helmet works with existing lacrosse goggles, is up to headgear safety standards, and has a back opening for a pony tail.
The lacrosse helmet passed American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards before it went to market.
“Not many can pass that,” Springs said, “and we passed it.”
Cascade, a competitor, offers a similar energy dissipation technology in their Cascade R for $30 more at most retailers. The R is the official helmet of Major League Lacrosse and USA Lacrosse.
New helmet technology goes through a battery of tests to ensure its safety. While a football prototype went through testing at Virginia Tech, Windpact cannot publish the results until the helmet is ready for commercial sale.
Windpact collaborated with the same people who designed the helmets for the band Daft Punk, known for their high-tech set-up.
“This could be the best tech in the world, but if it does not look cool, nobody will buy it,” Champagne said.
The hope is to sell at prices similar to those currently on the market. Adult helmets range in price from $50 to $439 online.
While Springs and Champagne are confident Windpact technology is better than what is currently available, both understand some consumers will not be able to afford the first issue of the helmets.
“D.C. cannot afford the same things that Loudon, P.G [Prince George’s], and Montgomery County can,” Springs said.
There is still an urgency to get the helmets on the shelves soon.
“We do not know if [head injuries] are as bad, or worse than, smoking,” Mauch said.
“Our goal is to reduce force to the head,” Springs said. “I do not think anybody in our lifetime will prevent concussions.”