3:22 PM EDT, May 14, 2011
Stefan Duma is unlikely to join Bruce Smith, Frank Beamer and Michael Vick on Virginia Tech football's Mount Rushmore. But his contributions to the game may prove as enduring as any sack, game plan or touchdown pass.
A professor at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, Duma leads a team that has developed the first safety ratings for football helmets, potentially an invaluable advance in this era of terrifying collisions, subsequent concussions and long-term health concerns.
Some helmet manufacturers question his science, but Duma said his methodology has been peer-reviewed, accepted for publishing by the Annals of Biomedical Engineering and was eight years in the making.
Indeed, thanks to cooperation from Hokies' coaches, medical staff and players, Duma has for the last eight seasons analyzed more than one million head impacts measured by sensors placed in helmets. Charting the forces and directions of those collisions allowed researchers to identify the most vulnerable areas of the helmet and to develop the most effective safety tests.
Helmets were dropped from five heights to measure how much force reached the skull.
And why football helmets?
"It was the next logical step," Duma said. "We've done extensive work with the military and auto industry."
His timing is impeccable. Concussions and their long-term implications are on football's front burner like never before.
In Week 6 of last year's NFL season, the league fined Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson and Steelers linebacker James Harrison a combined $175,000 for blows to the helmet. Moreover, the NFL threatened to suspend future offenders
Former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson committed suicide in February, and Boston University researchers found that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition marked by memory loss and dementia and caused by repeated head trauma.
Closer to home, new state law requires high school athletes who display concussion symptoms to be removed from competition. Further, school districts are required to develop a concussion protocol by this summer.
According to the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study for the 2009-10 academic year, head and face injuries accounted for 19.2 percent of prep football injuries. Next on the list were ankles and knees at 10.7 and 10.1 percent, respectively.
But Duma and others attribute the high percentage not to an increase in concussions but to increased vigilance by trainers, coaches and parents.
"What's happening is we're reporting more concussions," Duma said. "There's not more concussions. I submit we're having fewer concussions."
Duma understands the good intentions behind mandated time off for concussed athletes but fears unintended consequences.
"What's going to happen is kids aren't going to report their injuries because they don't want to miss the next game," he said. "Every concussion is different. Every player is different. Just like every ACL reconstruction is different. …
"Athletes are getting bigger, faster, stronger every year, and the brain is not changing, but we have not seen a difference (in force impact)."
Duma credits that to improved helmets that offer not only more padding but also greater protection of the jaw line.
One of the most advanced helmets, the Riddell Revolution, is rooted in the repeated concussions that curtailed the career of Al Toon, a Pro Bowl receiver for the New York Jets from Newport News' Menchville High.
Toon retired in 1992 at age 29 and after nine concussions. Seeing Toon suffer with headaches, confusion and amnesia, Jets physician Elliot Pellman helped Riddell develop the Revolution.
Using categories ranging from "not recommended" to "best available," no stars to five stars, Duma rated all 10 adult helmets on the market. All three of Riddell's Revolution models were four-star or better, but the company's VSR4 was rated "marginal," or one-star.
Riddell discontinued the VSR4 last year, but since helmets have a 10-year shelf life — they are reconditioned annually — many remain in use.
About 30 percent of Virginia Tech's helmets were VSR4s, so the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences spent nearly $10,000 to purchase 40 Riddell Revolution Speeds, the top-ranked helmet in Duma's study.
Riddell also announced that 38 percent of NFL players wore the marginal helmet last season.
"It is our hope based upon this and other independent research, that players and teams at all levels will continue to migrate to the Revolution family of helmets," Riddell said in a statement to the Associated Press.
Duma stressed that his $300,000 project accepted no funding from helmet makers, even to the point of buying the helmets for testing at retail.
The average price of those helmets was $213.30. The top-rated Riddell Revolution Speed was $243.99, but two four-star helmets, the Schutt DNA Pro + and Riddell Revolution, cost far below average at $169.95 and $182.99.
Available online at http://www.sbes.vt.edu, Duma's rankings are good news to area high schools and colleges.
Phoebus High coach Stan Sexton said his state champions wear mostly Schutt Airs (two-star) and Riddell Revolutions (four-star).
Belinda Langston, the student athletics specialist for Newport News Schools, said that for the last few years the only helmet she's purchased for the city's five high schools is the four-star Schutt DNA Pro +. Langston needs to buy hundreds more for the 2011 season and she's debating a switch to the four-star Revolution.
Based on player preference, the University of Virginia and William and Mary use five models, all of which Duma rated three-star or better.
"We see a lot more kids coming out of high school who have worn the new technology," W&M equipment manager Greg Klimas said.
That means high school officials are monitoring the latest upgrades and, most important, fitting their players with the safest helmets.
"There's always that risk (of concussion)," Klimas said. "We make sure every kid reads and understands the warning label on the helmet. We could have the latest in technology, but it's not going to eliminate the possibility."
Duma, who plans to rate helmets annually, agrees but believes switching from a one-star to four-star helmet could cut a player's concussion risk by half.
"When you go to buy a car you can see the safety rating right there on the sticker," he said. "Why not football helmets, too?"
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP