Ahead of the game

In the University of Montana's athletic equipment center, its director, Robert Stack, who might pass for a Griz linebacker if not for his gray hair and goatee, stands amid shelves of silver helmets, detached maroon facemasks, chinstraps, and padding. He's pulled three new helmets down onto a table. They appear unremarkable, until Stack, going into his 22nd year working the equipment room, explains that they're more advanced and safer than even the ones most NFL players wear. "We basically have the best helmets that the manufacturers put out," he says.

New research conducted at Virginia Tech confirms as much. In late May, the school released a new rating system for helmets intended to reduce the risk of concussions. The researchers, led by Virginia Tech's Stefan Duma, a biomedical engineer, gave only one helmet on the market a five-star rating. It's the Riddell Revolution Speed, one of the three helmets Stack displays in the equipment room. The two other helmets—the Schutt DNA Pro+ and the Riddell Revolution—were among the five helmets that received a four-star rating.

Stack says about 95 percent of the helmets Griz players wear were given four or five stars, and those helmets, compared to the one-star Riddell VSR4, which nearly 40 percent of NFL players wore last season, can cut the risk of concussion in half, according to Duma's research.

The rating system is the result of Duma and his team measuring every head impact that a pool of collegiate players experienced in every practice and game over eight years—more than one million measured impacts in all. It arrives amid growing concern and awareness surrounding the prevalence of concussions in football and their long-term health risks.

Stack says the UM athletic department opted for the most advanced helmets long before Virginia Tech's research. "We stay on top of the new technologies that come out every year, and we've been ahead of the game," he says. "You want to protect these kids. And with all the concussions now, it's really in the limelight."

That said, football is a collision sport, and blows to the head, Stack says, "are just part of the game. It's going to happen."

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