Tackling football helmet safety head-on
When a father’s proficiency in science and a mother’s passion for safety intersected with their son’s love of the game, a “Guardian” was born.
Over the course of the next three days, the childhood dreams of hundreds of young men will become a reality when their names are called during the 2018 NFL Draft. For picks No. 1 through No. 256 — affectionately nicknamed “Mr. Irrelevant” — this moment will represent the culmination of years of hard work and devotion.
Being drafted may also represent more than a little luck for each of them, having thus far avoided the types of injuries that have derailed the football dreams of so many others. From pulled hamstrings to broken bones, playing the game of football can come with an accepted, if unwritten, toll on the body. Significantly, some of the issues — concussions, brain injuries, and the growing concern about head trauma in football — have some parents of football’s next generation of stars reconsidering even allowing their children to play the sport.
A study by the National Federation of State High School Associations found that while overall participation in American high school sports continues to grow — reaching an all-time high of nearly 8 million participants in 2016-2017 — the number of kids playing high school football is declining.
‘We can do it in a better way’
Concerns about head trauma were at the top of the list for Erin and Lee Hanson when the youngest of their five children — and only son — Jake, wanted to play football. Fortunately for Jake, his parents didn’t just say “no,” they searched for a solution to help make the game safer.
“When I started watching him play football, it wasn’t just, ‘Wow, go Jake!’ — I was wincing with every hit,” Erin Hanson recalled. “So, I thought if he’s going to be out there playing this sport that he loves, we can do it in a better way.”
In 2010, the couple started Atlanta-based Guardian Innovations, and within a year they began manufacturing the Guardian Cap™, a soft-shell football and lacrosse helmet cover that reduces the G-force impact of a hit up to 33 percent.
“By adding a soft, padded barrier between two hard helmets hitting each other — a crash barrier that decreases the deceleration of the hit — the Guardian Cap literally changes the physics of the hit,” said Lee Hanson. “It effectively increases the time in which a head colliding with another object comes to rest.”
Less than a decade later, the Guardian Cap has been worn by more than 90,000 athletes in practices from youth football to more than 100 college programs. It also won the NFL’s first HeadHealthTECH Challenge in 2017, which awards grants to companies that encourage and support new and innovative ideas to improve sports safety.
As the company has quickly grown, the Hansons have relied on their banking relationship with Wells Fargo — which dates back to the mid-1980s — to help them keep their business financing in step with the continued demand for the Guardian Cap.
Science meets sport
The success of the Guardian Cap has been in no small part due to the existence of The Hanson Group, a material sciences company started by the couple in 1995.
After nearly a dozen years in the corporate world, Lee Hanson, a chemical engineer by trade, decided that, “to have the freedom to create the things I wanted to create, I had to have my own company.
“Initially, the vision of The Hanson Group was to create products that other companies didn’t want to make — or they couldn’t make — and to solve problems,” he said. “We had a gentlemen approach us to develop a coating for a football helmet, but when we started seeing the data about what a flexible exterior could do, the wheels started turning.”
After getting firsthand feedback from Erin Hanson’s father, Jim Nemec, about his experience playing college football at Purdue University in the 1950s, they quickly realized that even though much of the game had evolved since his playing days, the hard-shell design of the classic football helmet remained fairly unchanged.
“We know that that helmet is phenomenal at preventing a skull fracture, that’s what it was manufactured to do,” said Erin Hanson. “But now the concern for football players isn’t about skull fractures — those have been virtually eliminated — it’s about brain injuries. So taking the steps toward addressing that and reducing impact made sense.”
The Hansons developed the Guardian Cap utilizing exterior padding to improve the engineering structure of the existing helmet, making it flexible, soft, and able to more effectively manage energy and mitigate repetitive, cumulative blows while absorbing up to 33 percent of the impact in a collision, they said.
“Schools’ budgets are such that they can’t just wipe out their entire inventory of helmets and start over,” Erin Hanson said. “So we decided, instead of reinventing the entire helmet, what if we just retrofit what these schools already have, and we can do it inexpensively and in a one-size-fits-all model — this was the origin for the Guardian Cap concept.”
Head football coach Franklin Pridgen at suburban Atlanta’s Wesleyan High School began using the Guardian Cap almost as soon as the product was introduced in 2011. He admits that while the protective padding has certainly changed the traditional sound of his team’s practices — replacing what use to be a sharp crack when there was a helmet-to-helmet collision with now what he calls a “dull thud” — the caps have been easy to integrate at all levels of his football program, down to even the middle school team.
“The product is a piece of what we use to maximize the safety of our kids,” said Pridgen. “We use it in conjunction with our off-season training and with our tackling techniques. It has had a positive impact.”