Thad Ide
“People would prefer the magic bullet—a concussion-proof helmet,” says Ide. “But I don’t see that on the horizon anytime soon.”

Whenever Thad Ide sees two massive football players collide, helmet to helmet or shoulder to helmet, he begins to calculate—not the yardage gained or lost on the play but the amount of force applied to the players’ heads.

How fast were the bodies traveling at the moment of impact? If they exceeded a speed of 17.5 miles an hour, Ide knows, the collision quite likely caused a concussion.

Ide is the senior vice president of research and product development at Riddell, the Rosemont-based company where he’s devoted most of his professional life to one thing: building a safer football helmet.

Head injury in athletes has become a subject of deep concern in recent years. A 2000 study of former NFL players found that 60 percent had suffered at least one concussion, and those who had experienced concussions were more likely to report problems with memory and concentration, speech impediments, and headaches. Another study, in 2007, found that 20 percent of players who had sustained three or more concussions suffered depression. Football players, according to yet another study, are far likelier to develop Alzheimer’s disease than the rest of the population.

Earlier this year, the former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, 50, the father of four, and one of the most intelligent men to ever play for the team, killed himself with a shot to the chest. Before his suicide, he complained to his ex-wife of blurred vision, memory loss, and pain on the left side of his head. Duerson left a suicide note reading: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” That bank, Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, confirmed Duerson’s suspicion that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease associated with dementia and depression.

Americans worship football players for their great strength and bravery. We stand and cheer as they knock one another senseless and wobble back onto the field. Yet now we know, even as we cheer, that many of these young men are doomed to gruesome fates. The scientific studies are conclusive. The toll is rising.

Is it unavoidable?

More than a hundred years ago, after a series of brutal injuries to football players, President Theodore Roosevelt called for a summit at the White House. Soon after, a group of 13 prominent college leaders came close to banning the game. Instead, they changed some of the rules in an effort to reduce injuries. The changes proved helpful, and the game resumed.

Today the NFL is taking steps to reduce the risk of head injuries, instituting rule changes that include stiff penalties for players who launch themselves headfirst at vulnerable opponents. But the dangers can’t be eliminated. Modern players are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before, meaning that they collide with far greater force. The only way to prevent the damage entirely would be to remove all the impact—make the pros play flag football. But that’s not going to happen. Take away the violence, and football isn’t football. In other words, the problem isn’t going away.

That’s where Riddell’s Thad Ide and others doing similar work come in.

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Riddell has been in the Chicago area since 1929, when John T. Riddell, a high-school football coach in Evanston, founded a company to make shoes with removable cleats. Helmets came later. Today about 75 percent of all NFL players wear Riddell helmets. The company is owned by California-based Easton-Bell Sports but keeps its headquarters in Rosemont.

Ide works in a nondescript office building near O’Hare. The bland surroundings seem to suit Ide, a soft-spoken man with a degree in engineering from Michigan State who has spent his whole career working on helmet design. As he welcomes me to his laboratory, walking past rack after rack of unmarked football helmets and some big machines that look like torture devices or high-tech gym equipment, he sets to work right away on lowering my expectations.

“People would prefer the magic bullet—a concussion-proof helmet,” says Ide. “But I don’t see that on the horizon anytime soon. The technology doesn’t exist.”

And it may never exist.

The best way to reduce head injuries in football is to get players to stop using their heads when they block and tackle, he says. Offensive linemen, for example, begin every play in a crouch, their helmets aimed at their opponents. But players who try to tackle with their arms out to one side won’t last long in the NFL—ball carriers will run to the other side or right through them. Staying centered is the only way to bring down a big, hard-charging man—and staying centered means keeping your head in the play.

Ide hands me a human head—one made of composite materials that simulate everything from the flesh to the skull and the sinus cavities. It weighs 12 pounds. He puts a helmet on it and loads it on a machine. A lab technician pushes a button, and the machine drops the head 60 inches onto a steel anvil. A digital readout says the impact measured 379 on the severity index, an algorithm of force used to measure the likelihood of injury. Industry standards say injury is likely to occur at 1,200 on the severity index.

“It’s very rare that you find a steel anvil on a football field,” Ide says, in his only attempt at humor for the day. The point: This is worse than any collision a player might have in a game. The helmet did its job.

He moves on to another machine. This one simulates the impact of two football helmets colliding at a speed of about 17.5 miles an hour. Analysis of NFL films tells him that 17.5 miles an hour is the mean velocity at which concussions occur. The sound of the collision is like a gunshot, but the impact registers only 432.

Ide’s job is to bring those numbers down, little by little, by making changes to the design of the helmet.

“It’s kind of an arms race to protection,” says Riddell’s president, Dan Arment. “The competition forces us to get better, to ask if we’re putting the most protective equipment we can on the field.”

Former NFL players recently sued the NFL and Riddell, claiming that the dangers of concussions were concealed for decades. Riddell declines to comment on pending litigation. Arment says the company is committed to safety, and making safer helmets is good business.

A couple of years ago, Riddell sent its best new helmet, the 360, to a laboratory in Canada. They asked the lab techs there to tell them exactly how the force of frontal impact was transferred from the helmet to the player’s head. The answer: Most of it traveled through the latch that attached the facemask to the one-piece plastic shell. That latch was located at the top of the facemask, roughly at the point of the player’s forehead. Suddenly it seemed obvious. If the facemask attached to the sides of the helmet instead of to the top, much of the force would be released away from the player’s head.

It took time to get it right, but the new design worked, and it sharply reduced the impact of frontal hits. You’ll see some players in the NFL and NCAA wearing the new helmets this season.

“A lot of really good ideas seem obvious after you’ve heard them,” Ide says.

* * *

But is it enough? No. In fact, there’s a terrible irony in all of this. The more protected athletes feel, the more inclined they are to throw themselves headfirst at their opponents. Even if equipment makers can make helmets that dramatically diminish the impact of each hit, there’s still the issue of the damage caused by numerous small and seemingly harmless collisions. A football player absorbs thousands of minor but jarring blows over the course of a season, each one shaking his brain from side to side and weakening the connections among the nerve cells.

That’s why some teams have cut back on full-contact practices. It’s why the NFL has moved the line for kickoffs this season, after acknowledging that kickoff returns result in a disproportionately high number of head injuries.

But Ide would like to see teams take it to another level. Already, thousands of college players wear helmets with sensors that transmit data to the sidelines, reporting the impact of every blow to their heads. Some colleges are using the data to study the effects of football-related head injuries.

So it’s possible that sideline monitors could keep tabs on each player. The NFL could set standards: A player would be allowed to absorb only so much impact in a game or over the course of a season. If a player crosses one of those thresholds—and Ide doesn’t know yet how those thresholds would be fixed—he must be benched. Just as baseball coaches and spectators keep track of pitch counts, football coaches and fans would keep track of blows to the head and their severity. Television commentators would update fans with easy-to-read graphics.

The idea has a lot to recommend it. Imagine if the Bears faced the prospect of finishing the fourth quarter of a close game—or finishing the season—without Brian Urlacher. You can bet Urlacher would learn to play the game differently, avoiding headfirst collisions as much as possible. And you can bet that Bears coaches would do everything possible to protect him too.

If playing the game more safely is linked inexorably to winning, we might see real progress.

That’s what Ide is rooting for. He’s a fan of the game. He has fun watching and does his best to put the science out of his mind when the TV is on. Yet he cringes—“as much as everyone else, I think”—when he sees players knocked dizzy.

I ask him if he would ever let his own children play football.

He has two small girls, he tells me.

But what if they wanted to play? Or what if he had boys?

He pauses only briefly before saying, “I think I’d be OK with it. I wouldn’t start them at tackle as early as a lot of people do. But I think the research is going in the right direction.”


Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp