Trent Taylor, a wide receiver for Evangel Christian (Shreveport, La.), was skeptical when told to attach a cover to his helmet last month before the championship game of the National Select 7 on 7 event last month in Hoover, Ala.
"My first reaction was that I didn't want to look stupid out there with this big thing on my head," Taylor said. "I thought it would hold me back, but I couldn't really tell the difference once I put it on."
The addition to Taylor's helmet was a Guardian, a soft-shell gel-filled cover that markets for $69.95 and looks like a cross between the leather helmets players wore in the early 20th century and a package covered in bubble wrap.
As high school teams begin practicing, roughly 160 are already using the Guardian, though medical researchers are skeptical about the product's effectiveness.
"Generally speaking, the protection ought to be put on the inside, not the outside, of the helmet," said Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and medical director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.
A 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Injury Prevention found that 47% of high school football players say they suffer a concussion each season, with 35% reporting multiple concussions in a season.
It isn't just concussions that worry athletes, parents, coaches and researchers. A 2010 Purdue University study found that high school players with the most impaired visual memory skills were not those diagnosed with concussions but in the group that experienced a large number of sub-concussive hits.
Hoover is using its 20 Guardians on linemen or players who have had concussions. Evangel Christian and Hoover, Ala., received their Guardians for free because they reached the finals of the 7 on 7 event.
"We want to take as much precaution as we can," said Hoover coach Josh Niblett. "We have some kids who will continue to wear them in practice who have had concussions in the past.
Evangel Christian coach Phillip Dees, who's using 25 Guardians in practice, agrees. But he worries how his players will fare in games without them. The helmet covers have not been approved for competition by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"They're really promoting it as a practice tool for those guys who are constantly butting heads," Dees said. "That's something that, as a coach, what you're always worried about. If you practice in that helmet every day and you take it off for games, how much different is that going to be when you're so used to a more cushioned contact?"
Most high school coaches, such as Bruce Rollinson at Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), are taking a wait-and-see approach.
"I'm not using those covers," Rollinson said. "The budget didn't allow it. Plus, I want to see the results of the top teams that use them, whether they legitimately felt that through the week of practice that their concussions were reduced. I wanted more data. I want the best safety for the Mater Dei athletes, but it's also a new product and I don't like being the first guy on the block."
POC Ventures, the Alpharetta, Ga., company that produces the Guardian, doesn't claim its product reduces concussions, but, citing studies at Wayne State in Detroit, Penn State and the Oregon Ballistics Laboratories, said it can reduce the impact to the head in football collisions.
However, Cantu is concerned that the helmet covers could cause more damage. He said he had examined the ProCap, which was the predecessor to Guardian Caps, and had reservations. The ProCap is fitted while the Guardian is marketed as one size fits all.
"Any (added) substance on the outside of the helmet, the concern has to be that there is greater friction when the two heads hit," Cantu said. "If there is, then there can be a greater chance of transmitting the impact to the spine. Secondly, greater friction may cause the head to spin upon contact, which can cause damage. The problems with the ProCap, was one, they came off. Two, they increased the size of the helmet. You increase the size of the helmet and you increase the chance of helmet-to-helmet contact."
Lee Hanson, president and CEO of POC Ventures, said the Guardian was designed to have less friction than hard-shell helmets.
"We knew that would be a question," he said. "We use a slippery material, which has a lower coefficient of friction than a standard hard-shell helmet.
As far as the larger size, Hansen said that's not much of a problem.
"We've heard it called everything from bobblehead to concussion condom to a spider," Hansen said. "If it protects you, who cares what it looks like?" he said. "It's big, but it's only a half-inch bigger than most helmets, which are already bigger today than they were five years ago."
Mike Oliver, executive director of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, said the Guardian hasn't been thoroughly tested through peer-reviewed science.
"There are several concerns beyond the lack of science," Oliver said in an email. "For youth players the extra weight and diameter might increase the risk of neck injuries. Additionally, there is a real risk of creating a false sense of security in the players using these devices, de-emphasizing the other vital steps in concussion protection, like avoiding the avoidable hits to the head."
Cantu said the problems that come with butting heads is best solved by cutting down head-to-head contact.
"It's great people want to make better helmets," he said. "That having all been said, the best way to reduce the number of sub-concussive blows is to reduce the amount of hits in practice."