By Dick Dornan
BurbankNBeyond Sports Editor
Safety is of utmost importance in high school sports. Developing products and implementing strategies to aid in the awareness of head injuries goes a long way towards protecting the athletes. The topic of concussions has become as popular as coaches drawing up X’s and O’s on a whiteboard.
With the fear of concussions continuing to rise each year amongst parents, school officials and health professionals, so has the emphasis on safety awareness. Gamebreaker Helmets, a company based in Newbury Park, has developed a product to help lower the risk of head injuries during spring and summer competition when full pads are not allowed.
As another sign of safety precaution, the John Burroughs and Burbank football programs invested in the gamebreaker helmets this past summer. They are used exclusively for seven-on-seven passing competitions.
“Without the helmets I think we would have had a couple cuts. The kids are comfortable wearing them and I think it worked out fine. The helmets protected them pretty good,” Burbank Coach Hector Valencia said. “Almost every other team had one. It’s become more of the norm. I think teams that experience a concussion begin to realize maybe they should invest in them.”
“I believe they helped us out,” added Burbank senior quarterback, Zak Tomlinson. “I think it’s a good step and it will help us out in the future. Our team didn’t have any concussions.”
Founded in September of 2011 by former Agoura High standout Joey LaRocque and Mike Juels, the gamebreaker helmets remind football coaches of the old-school leather helmets worn in the 1920 and 30’s. Weighing only 2.6 ounces, these ‘soft shell’ caps have been designed to offer maximum protection upon impact.
“Schools, organizations and football programs are beginning to realize that there is something out there to protect kids,” LaRocque said. “We offer a product that reduces the risk of head injuries. There is a need for safety and we want to help keep kids safe.”
John Burroughs Coach Keith Knoop decided to purchase 24 helmets for his players to share amongst themselves. He understands they are not as safe as real helmets that are used during the actual regular season but it is a step to help soften a severe blow to the head otherwise.
“It really helped with the little incidental contact. For the most part, we had a good experience,” Knoop said. “I’m not so sure they could replace helmets. Kids think they are invincible with or without helmets. They think they are superman and will play hard regardless of what they wear.”
Wearing the helmets though out summer seven-on-seven passing competitions was a positive experience for many of the JBHS players including junior wide receiver Jake Nutty and junior linebacker Dillon Meza.
“I remember one time I caught a ball over the middle and I landed on my head and usually that hurts,” Nutty explained. “But I felt like it definitely helped a lot more than it would have if I didn’t have the helmet on. There are times when two people go up for a ball and you could hit heads. The person with the padded helmet is going to take less of the blow.”
“Yeah they are pretty good. I almost got hit in the temple and it protected me,” Meza added. “In passing leagues there are a lot of elbows to the face or the head. They should cut down on injuries to the head.”
Gamebreaker Helmets has acquired more than 250 schools in Southern California and 300 across the United States. High schools such as Burbank and Burroughs have joined in the effort to raise safety awareness on the gridiron.
“We saw a ton of schools wearing them,” said Kenny Knoop, Keith’s brother. “Not only does it keep kids safe but the kids actually took pride in them. We liked it for sure.”
Doctors from UCLA, USC, Stanford, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina came together to form BRAIN first, a company that conducted tests on soft shell caps and specifically the gamebreaker helmets. Studies showed that the risk of head injuries were reduced 30 to 60 percent by the reduction of force or force attenuation.
“For many years the discussion of head injuries got brushed under the rug and coaches would move on to the next season,” said LaRocque, who was an All-Pac 10 performer at Oregon State and played briefly in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. “Now a kid gets hurt and we get a call from the coach the very next day. Schools should be wanting and willing to keep their kids safe.”
Kenny Knoop also sees the introduction of gamebreaker helmets as an opportunity to teach his players the proper fundamentals early in the off-season so they are prepared for the regular season.
“One of the down falls in high school football is that we don’t have a full padded spring,” Knoop explained. “So we can’t teach proper technique until August. We go through drills half-speed but when you get those hats on you can get into the drill better and use real technique.
“I think this is a step into the right direction because every little bit helps especially when there is such a big eye watching. Concussions have been around for 100 years. Let’s do something more to protect the players.”