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New gear makes HS football faster, safer

Things Done Changed: From lighter cleats to new helmets, football equipment has changed dramatically the past 30 years



The Under Armour Highlight (pictured right) looks nothing like football shoes from the 80s, when having an accent color on traditional white or black shoes was seen as flashy. / adidas / Under Armour

Ever since the inaugural American Family Insurance ALL-USA was named 30 years ago, a lot has changed in high school football. Players are bigger. Gear is lighter. Players are more specialized. In “Things Done Changed,” we’ll look at how the game has evolved.

DeSoto (Texas) football coach Claude Mathis grew up in the wrong era. 

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Sure, he was a two-time All-State running back and two-time state champion while at Bartlett (Texas) from 1989-93. But all the heavy gear he wore, including his helmet and rock-like Spot-bilt cleats, weighed him down so he never reached his potential.

“I would have played a lot better if I wore today’s equipment back when I was in high school,” Mathis said. “Today’s gear makes a difference — big time. You’re so much lighter, and you’re cutting and running faster.”

Ever since the inaugural American Family Insurance ALL-USA football team was named 30 years ago, there’s been a seismic shift in football equipment. From lighter gear that supposedly makes the game faster to new helmets that are said to make the game safer, high school football in 2013 looks drastically different than it did in the 80s.

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There’s probably no better example of how gear has evolved than Under Armour’s Highlight cleat.

The most obvious change is that Under Armour didn’t even exist back when the first American Family Insurance ALL-USA football team came out in 1982. UA’s eventual founder, Kevin Plank, was only 10 years old at the time and 14 years away from creating his original sweat-wicking shirt.

Beyond the obvious, there’s the Highlight’s technology. The cleat’s snug high-top silhouette wraps the ankle tightly, rendering athletic tape unnecessary. Its molded tongue adds padding to athletes’ feet and shins, and the shoe’s footbed molds for a customized fit. Oh, and it weighs just 10.3 ounces, which Mathis might have appreciated – many Spot-bilt cleats weighed at least 4 more ounces.

Design-wise, the Highlight looks nothing like football shoes from the 80s, when having an accent color on traditional white or black shoes was seen as flashy. The Highlight comes in all sorts of vibrant colors and designs, ranging from all pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month to a red, white and blue flag-themed edition with stars.

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Desmond Howard says today’scleats are a far cry from when he played high school ball for St. Joseph (Cleveland, Ohio) in the 1980s. Back then, he says the big innovation was being able to screw in your own cleats – something today’s athletes take for granted.

“Everything was much simpler back then,” says Howard, now an ESPN analyst.

That’s for sure. Every major brand making football equipment has spent plenty of money developing technology to improve their products ever so slightly.

Nike’s Vapor Talon Elite features Hyperfuse construction, which Nike describes as three materials fused into one strong layer so seams are minimal and the shoe is both breathable and lightweight. Nike also claims the cleats extend their grip into the ground, giving players traction on demand.

The adidas 5-Star, meanwhile, features Sprintskin and Sprintframe technology, which adidas says helps reduce the cleat’s weight to just 7.9 ounces.

All that innovation has made equipment better, for sure, but also harder to decide what to buy.

The changes extend well beyond cleats. Under Armour’s sweat-wicking technology changed the game, allowing football players to play and train without the annoyance of chafing brought on by cotton shirts.

Now everybody creates similar material, and each brand tries to outdo one another.  

At the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, players suited up in an adidas uniform made of ultra lightweight fabric and carved out zones for ventilation, which the brand says cools the body. The jersey also included fewer seams than most uniforms, which is said to promote an improved range of motion.

“It’s literally skin tight and weighs nothing,” said Carmel (Ind.) coach Kevin Wright, who served as an assistant coach at the game.

Even eye black has changed. Back in the 80s and 90s, players had to actually paint it on in order to reduce glare. Now football players can slap on handy no-mess eye black stickers.

But there have been no changes more important than those to helmets. At January’s Under Armour All-America Game, players complemented their Highlight cleats with the Schutt Vengeance helmet. This helmet features Schutt’s patented TPU Cushing, which the company says helps absorb high- and low-velocity impacts.

And in 2011, Riddell launched its most revolutionary helmet yet: the Riddell 360. The design features a lightweight facemask the company says flexes and disperses energy to help reduce force from frontal impacts.The helmet earns a five-star rating from Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings, which assesses a helmet’s ability to reduce concussion risk.

Both helmets are a big change from when Howard would hand-pump air into his Bike helmet.

The innovation isn’t done. Thirty years from now, there’s no telling what kind of helmets high school players will be wearing.

“The future is bright when it comes to football equipment,” Mathis said.

 

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