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Once shunned by NFL, ‘disruptive’ helmet inventor believes his time has come

Bert Straus picked up a prototype of the football helmet he spent decades designing, slammed it against his knee several times and smiled.

“I’m not Superman,” the 81-year-old industrial designer said. “I wouldn’t do that on a hard shell.”

More than 20 years after the NFL spurned his early design for an unusual-looking helmet attachment with a soft outer surface, Straus believes now the time is right for his newest design given the intense attention being given to the problem of concussions in the game.

“In 1996, that was in the midst of the league of denial,” Straus said. “The NFL didn’t admit there was a problem and we were caught in the crossfire.”

Straus, who lives in Timonium, expects to begin meeting with helmet manufacturers in April to pitch his latest effort — a soft helmet with an updated approach to absorbing energy from collisions before it can be transferred to the skull. He developed it in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University.

Unlike the ProCap — a bulbous padded attachment developed by Straus that Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso and San Francisco 49ers lineman Steve Wallace wore over their helmets in the early 1990s — the new helmet looks fairly standard and is neither larger nor heavier than existing models.

“It looks aesthetically good on the head. It doesn’t look like you have a big Gazoo helmet,” said Matt Stover, the former Ravens kicker who has modeled the helmet and describes himself as a potential investor. “You’ve got a bunch of young guys out there, man. They don’t want to look stupid.”

Kelso, who credits the ProCap with prolonging his eight-season NFL career, was mocked by fans and players as the “Great Gazoo,” a reference to a character on the animated “Flintstones” TV series with a small body and oversized head.

“Yeah, he got ribbed by his teammates and so at first he refused to wear it,” Straus said. “I should have been thinking more about the appearance.”

The new helmet is designed to lessen the force of blows in several ways. It is soft to the touch and can be indented by pressing on it.

But the breakthrough, Straus said, came when he divided the helmet into four outer segments. Each segment can move independently, mitigating the force of a glancing blow to the player’s skull.

The principle has parallels to a bed with individually wrapped coils so one person’s movements don’t disturb another.

He calls the new design an ARK helmet, which stands for Anti Rotational Kinematics.

“ARK football helmets move to absorb the rotational force that reaches the brain” during hits, says Straus’ just-launched website.

The helmet, whose outer shell material remains a secret, was tested by Johns Hopkins under a research contract.

“We told Bert that, ‘Yes we can do that,’ we can test his ideas or concepts of new helmet technology virtually and that would save time and money,” said Nitin Daphalapurkar, an assistant research professor of mechanical engineering.

Now, Straus hopes to license the use of ARK technology to helmet manufacturers in exchange for a fee and royalties. He’s running it through a limited liability corporation funded by locally raised venture capital.

Straus said the technology may have applications beyond sports. For example, he said, it could have military applications.

After he introduced the ProCap, the NFL expressed reservations about it in 1996 although players weren’t prohibited from wearing one. Now, though the NFL is scrambling to address concussion risks and Straus said he has a good relationship with the league.

He recently applied for a $200,000 grant as part of an NFL health technology program with Duke University. He said he has no ill feelings toward the league and that receiving a grant would add “prestige and credibility” to his design.

Asked about Straus, a league spokesperson emailed a statement crediting the inventor’s “disruptive thinking,” intending it as a compliment.

“The NFL is committed to stimulating the marketplace and advancing sports technology and athlete safety through open innovation competitions, and welcomes new ideas from anyone,” the spokesperson said.

“Mr. Straus has a proven track record of innovation and disruptive thinking.”

After being criticized for not dealing with concussions for years, the NFL now is tightening rules to minimize such injuries and funding research into new technologies through various competitions.

Nearly a decade ago, it began a “protocol,” preventing players diagnosed with a concussion from returning to the field.

As Sunday’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots approached, the NFL said 281 concussions were reported in 2017, a 13.5 percent increase over the previous season.

NFL players may choose from a number of helmet makers — Riddell and Schutt are especially popular brands.

Among the newer manufacturers is VICIS, a Seattle company marketing a helmet called the Zero1 that it says is used by more than 60 NFL players on 18 NFL teams (but not the Ravens) as well as many top college teams.

Like Straus’ design, the Zero1 has a soft outer shell. The helmet, whose outer layer is in one piece, “yields during a collision like a car bumper, “ said VICIS CEO Dave Marver.

At $950, the Zero1 is pricey — many helmets are less than half that cost — and the Zero1 isn’t available yet at youth levels. But VICIS said recently that most Notre Dame players will wear the Zero1 next season.

Straus expects his helmet to be competitive with other models by selling for $350 to $400, and to be available to youth-league players.

If the helmet becomes popular, it will be another step closer to a vision Straus had while watching a football game in the 1980s.

“I saw a couple players go down on a head-to-head hit and I just reasoned that that didn’t have to be — and maybe if a giant pillow was inserted in between their two helmets, that wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “I started thinking about a soft-shelled addition to a football helmet mimicking the giant pillow that was in my imagination. I worked that up into a patentable concept.”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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