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Reality Check: How safe are the helmets WNC football players are using?

Before 2011, finding the safest football headgear was a challenge. That’s when Virginia Tech released ratings for helmets, from one to five stars, based on almost a decade's worth of research. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

The Polk County blue runs deep in the Overholt family. The Wolverines’ starting quarterback, Dillon Overholt, is the third member of his family to don the school’s colors. The first of his kin played roughly a decade ago, and, since then, players have gotten bigger and faster, producing cringe-worthy hits. One such highlight reel tackle caught the attention of Dillon’s father.

“He [Dillon] started when he was a freshman as a defensive back,” said Patrick Overholt. “And he got run over by a kid from Asheville. Great hit, everything was clean,” he said pausing, before adding, “I decided I'm going to give him the best equipment that they make, safety-wise.”

The first investment he made was in a Riddel 360 helmet. Overholt is not alone, as more and more parents are purchasing their children’s helmets.

Before 2011, finding the safest headgear was a challenge. That’s when Virginia Tech released ratings for helmets, from one to five stars, based on almost a decade's worth of research.

“The brain gets injured from acceleration. So, you have a head impact and the skull moves and the brain deforms relative to that impact,” explained Dr. Stefan Duma, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech who spearheaded the study. “What the helmet does is it pads the impact. The more you can cushion the impact, the less the brain is going to move.”

Duma and his team equipped the helmets of the Virginia Tech Hokies with sensors in 2003. They also recorded hits on video and used the information gathered to re-create scenarios in laboratory settings.

“Moving from a lower ranked helmet, like a one- or two-star, to a highly ranked helmet, like a five-star helmet, we've published research that shows that reduces your risk of injury by almost 50 percent.”

The ratings have caught the eyes of coaches across the country, including the staff at A.C. Reynolds High School. Coach Shane Laws has his team's helmets sent back to the manufacturer to be reconditioned after every season.

“They'll take all the padding, the guts out of the helmet and check the helmet for cracks or any kind of structural damage to the helmet,” he said. “They'll clean it and replace all the padding in the helmet, put a new facemask on the helmet, repaint it, then send it back to us in the springtime before the next season. So, in a way, you're almost getting a new helmet.”

A.C. Reynolds also purchases 10-15 new helmets every year. The five-star helmets, like the Riddel Speed the Rockets wear, are not cheap. The highest rated ones range from $199.99-$425. It’s the first thing accounted for when the coaching staff sits down with the administration to budget for the coming season.

“It's an important piece of equipment, so we're going to constantly do research and make sure that we have the best that we can for our players,” Laws said.

The priority is the same in Haywood County. Tuscola and Pisgah have outfitted their players in five-stars.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority. Our athletes have to be safe,” said Pisgah Athletic Director Casey Kruk. “That's the biggest thing that we do, so, we're going to put our funds to safety first and make sure those items are taken care of."

Tuscola AD Carol Fox agreed, adding its football budget is about $30,000 per year.

“The biggest percentage of our budget comes from the gates,” she said. “Then we do the advertising, we have a booster’s club that assists us with some of our big purchases that we need.”

Virginia Tech’s researchers have expanded their studies to include hockey head gear, the ratings for which have been released. Next on Duma’s agenda is lacrosse, cycling, equestrian and even soccer headgear. The researchers are not giving up on football. It’s just the manufacturers have raised their standards to meet the five-star criteria. Duma said in 2011 there was one five-star helmet. Now, there are 18.

“I think, if you look at the top-rated football helmets right now from all the manufacturers, they're about as good as they can get. There's only so much you can do with the laws of physics and the space,” Duma said. “It’s just like vehicles. No one makes a two-star car, because no one's going to buy a two-star car.”

Click here to find more information on the helmet rating system and see where your child’s helmet ranks.

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