As a linebacker for Omaha Gross High School more than 30 years ago, Stephen Eubanks slammed head-first into an Omaha Westside linebacker.
“I still have a very vivid memory of this,” Eubanks recalls. “It felt like someone opened the top of my scalp and poured warm sand down my neck.”
Eubanks got up and “shook off the cobwebs.”
He couldn’t make sense of the hand signals coaches were giving him as the defensive signal caller. He’s fortunate not to have sustained further damage.
Today, Eubanks is supervisor of athletics for OPS with oversight of sports at seven high schools. It’s in that role that he led a charge last summer to outfit OPS players with Riddell Speedflex helmets—high-tech, data-tracking helmets outfitted with the Riddell InSite Impact Response System.
Inside each helmet is a series of sensor pads that gauge impact. The sensor pads link to hand-held devices that track the number and force of hits players experience—in each practice and game as well as over time. An alert is given when impact exceeds a threshold that is predetermined for each position.
OPS was following the lead of Bellevue West, which started using the helmets in 2016, and Omaha Creighton Prep, which last year purchased the helmets for every player. Prep’s cost was underwritten by alum Jim O’Brien, a former football player for the Junior Jays. Bellevue, which started with 12 helmets, last year was able to purchase one for each member of their teams through the support of donors.
Whereas Prep had been researching a switch to the helmets for nearly a year, the OPS switch was put into motion in summer 2017. Eubanks (and coaches at other schools) had to learn about the helmets’ technology, their uses, and their cost. Eubanks also worked with the district’s legal team to consider legal implications, and protocols had to be established for what happens when a sensor goes off. He got the input of an OPS sports medicine committee. The sensor-equipped helmets cost up to twice the cost of a standard helmet. Omaha’s Sherwood Foundation paid more than $360,000 for the 800-plus helmets.
Once helmets were received, training was provided to coaches and athletic trainers.
OPS had coaches holding monitors. Prep had its head trainer holding the monitor at varsity games and a coach for other levels. Bellevue had trainers holding monitors.
Each helmet reports the player’s name, number, and position. A sensor going off does not mean a player has a concussion—only that a force strong enough to cause one has occurred.
“That first fall it only went off two times,” says Bellevue West head coach Mike Huffman. “Both times it was our running back [current Husker running back Jaylin Bradley] actually running over people. A lot of times its these young men that are bigger, they are faster, they are able to deliver the hits, that cause the sensors to go off.”
Coaches look to see if a player is down or has an observable indicator of a concussion, such as reaching for his head or walking with a wobbly gait. They can call the player to the sidelines and have them go through concussion protocol as outlined by the Concussion Awareness Act that went into effect in July 2012.
So what were results? In OPS it was something of a mixed bag, due in large measure to the compressed timetable in which the helmets were received.
“We wish we had more time on the front end, but we can’t control that or turn back time,” Eubanks says.
Syncing was off between the monitors and the sensors in some helmets. Some had battery issues. A single, malfunctioning helmet went off more than 100 times.
“There’s some work to do,” Eubanks says. “But we’re very excited, and I think that this next year will be even better.”
Each high school had at least one player whose sensor went off and who, ensuingly, was determined to have sustained a concussion. Other times, sensors went off but no concussion was determined.
“One time, it went off when a kid was just holding his helmet,” says Huffman.
Overall, sensors went off more frequently for linemen and linebackers—which was expected given the more frequent collisions among those players.
OPS was still pulling numbers at press time, but Eubanks says overall, the number of concussions diagnosed among OPS players was down from the previous year.
At Creighton Prep, Dr. Daniel Schinzel, the schools’ athletic director, couldn’t point to any difference in the number of concussions diagnosed. He did like the cumulative data the helmets give, showing patterns for different positions and for specific individuals.
“If No. 88 has an inordinate number of hits at or near the threshold, you can coach the kid on using proper technique,” Schinzel say. “You can say, ‘Look, your hits are very close to the threshold because you’re not keeping your head up.’”
“It’s definitely a great tool,” says Huffman. “It doesn’t prevent things from happening.”
He continues, “Most of the time, you don’t realize the impact of the head hitting the group. Now, when that device buzzes, it makes you think.”
“I think the technology is great, but technology is only going to be useful as a tool if you have the right people running it,” Schinzel says while praising his school’s head athletic trainer, Bill Kleber. “It just gives him more information as he’s doing his job.”
Another point Huffman made is that costs for these helmets will be ongoing, although the imbedded technology is worth it.
“A helmet is only good for—10 years,” he says, though skeptical of that number. “I keep helmets for about 6. So, starting in two years, I’ll need to start replacing them at about 20 a year.”
Sensors or not, Eubanks says helmets are improved over what he wore when playing. “One-hundred percent,” he says.
This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.