IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa was among the last college football teams to dump padded football helmets, and Greg Morris needed to say something.
This was more than a quarter-century ago, and the Hawkeyes’ equipment manager wasn’t sold on the newer air-pressure helmets. Padding, he thought, had more potential.
So he asked Iowa’s Riddell rep, Dave Baron, for a favor.
If the equipment company went back to padded helmets, he wanted Iowa to have them first. Baron looked Morris in the eyes and said one word.
Fast forward to 2018. In the next year, Iowa will become the first college program to outfit its entire team in $1,000 customized padded helmets.
“Never in my wildest dreams when I started barking at them in 1990, 1991,” Morris said, “did I think we would come to this.”
First and foremost, Morris is a father. His policy on helmets essentially boils down to if he is comfortable with his sons, James and Jake, both former college football players, wearing them.
“That’s important,” Morris said. “Just to think that way a little bit.”
Morris, who started working with Iowa as a student in 1979, believes in safety first. Always has. Even before the revelations about concussions, CTE and the long-term health impact of playing football.
He confers with fellow Big Ten equipment managers. He meets with various sales reps about new products.
“It is to the point where you better be doing, looking, studying and realizing everything you can do to help make your players safer,” Morris said.
It’s why he stayed a proponent of the padded helmets. His decade-plus of work experience with the older version of padded helmets was positive. Iowa typically didn’t experience major safety or health problems with them, according to Morris.
The foam pieces snapped into place. Each one varied in size, so Morris could adapt them best he could to each player’s head.
“We had no science behind it,” Morris said. “We just knew that even then if it fit, we had a better chance of keeping people healthy.”
Morris’ concern with air pressure helmets focuses on how the air affects them. Iowa checks it before every game in a 70-degree indoor room. On 30-degree November nights, the air pressure drops and Morris must add air back into the helmet on the field. Air pressure increases during a 90-degree game in September and he must let it out.
Morris viewed the fitting maintenance as an extra step, one a padded helmet didn’t need.
He stuck with air pressure helmets because it was Iowa’s only option as padded helmets were phased out. The industry moved toward air pressure helmets because it was viewed as a step-forward in player protection, Baron said.
Morris changed as helmets evolved, keeping Iowa in what he viewed as the safest helmet. He liked Riddell’s Speed Flex helmet, which the team used in recent years.
But he never stopped talked talking about the padded helmet.
A new helmet for a new day
For years, Morris was Baron’s only customer asking for a change. But as technology improved, over time a customizable helmet became a viable option.
Now, Riddell wants to mass produce it so every high school player will wear one by 2022. The company sought a team to test and further develop the Precision Fit for the 2016 season.
Baron knew the perfect one.
“Saying [Morris] was excited was an understatement,” Baron said.
The Precision Fit starts with the same exterior shell as the original Speed Flex, but uses six foam pieces to add a fully customized interior pad.
“You can think of people’s head sizes and shapes like fingerprints,” Riddell senior vice president of research and product development Thad Ide said. “No two are alike and everybody gets a fully unique helmet that fits them and only them.”
Baron takes a 3D scan of a player’s head with a device that looks like a large iPad. In two to three minutes, the process is complete. A helmet arrives in four to six weeks.
“It’s straight out of somebody’s science fiction movie,” Morris said.
Word of the helmet made the rounds. A rival Big Ten school asked Baron to cut to the front of the line. Baron politely told them no.
Morris fought for it. The helmets, to start, were his.
Seven Iowa players wore the new helmets in 2016. Morris chose starters, including running back LeShun Daniels Jr. and tight end George Kittle, because of the amount of wear and tear their helmets received in games and practices.
The Hawkeyes added eight players last year, including tight end Noah Fant. Morris said he believes no program placed more players in the padded helmet the last two seasons.
When breaking in other helmets, players typically reported a few days of mild head pain. The process is similar, Morris said, to how you break in a leather shoe.
To Morris’ surprise, players’ didn’t have any of the initial issues with the customizable helmet. The only complaints came later when facemasks broke, a common problem in college football.
“It’s a thin wire,” Morris said. “That’s not a crisis.”
Fant quickly grew to like the new helmet and how there is minimal helmet movement when he turns his head trying to catch a pass.
“For me personally, I would say it’s a softer, more cushioned material inside,” Fant said. “[Putting it on and wearing it is] almost like slipping a glove on.”
Kittle asked the San Francisco 49ers to use the customized helmet last season. After talking to Morris about the helmet, former Iowa offensive lineman Matt Tobin will wear it with New England this season.
“I’ve never had players in the NFL give me a hug for doing the helmets for them and that’s happened twice now,” Baron said.
Morris gives the helmet top marks after two years of use because of the player response and the fact no one using it suffered a concussion. Most teams Baron deals with average eight to 10 concussions per season.
“The fact we were 100 percent perfect the first year and 100 percent perfect the second year really tells me something about what they are trying to do,” Morris said. “It tells me our way of thinking [about padded helmets being safer] is probably right on.”
Ide said no helmet is concussion proof. University of Iowa Hospital pediatric doctor Andrew Peterson, who specializes in concussions, agreed, adding data suggests helmets help prevent fatalities, not concussions.
He believes the biggest change for Iowa with the custom fit helmet is in the way it feels for the players.
“They are a little bit lighter,” Peterson said. “We had a handful of players in them last year and they really liked them.”
The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab test helmets in a lab to replicate the kind of hits delivered on the field and rates helmets on an ability to reduce concussion risks on linear and rotational acceleration impacts.
The Precision Fit earned a 5-star rating with a score of 3.23. It’s the fourth-best number of any tested helmet. The lower the figure, the better the helmet graded out.
The Vicis Zero I received the best score of 1.92. Morris is familiar with the helmet, but it comes from a new manufacturer and he is cautious. He wants to see more on-field results and additional independent testing of Vicis helmets to go along with the Virginia Tech score.
The Precision Fit tested better than the Speed Flex, which received a score of 4.49. Virginia Tech Helmet Lab research associate and outreach coordinator Abi Tyson said testing doesn’t show a “huge difference” between the Riddell helmets.
Like Peterson, she reiterates the biggest change is in player comfort.
“There are people who prefer customization,” Tyson said. “One reason the Precision Fit was created is a whole group of people who worry that helmet fit could impact performance.”
Overall, the early returns are positive on the Precision Fit, be it in labs, from Riddell and at Iowa.
“The on-field performance has been outstanding from both the player and the team standpoint,” Ide said. “We have [heard] tremendous, positive feedback about it.”
Because the Precision Fit helmet is new, Riddell is still tinkering with it. The company wants to add a G-force tracker to the helmet, alerting the training and medical staff in real-time of a potential problem.
Iowa can’t insert the tractor because the wireless technology at the hospital across the street from Kinnick Stadium causes a delay in the information arriving. Riddell needs to amplify the signal in the helmet unit and sideline tracking monitor.
Riddell also can’t manufacture the helmet quick enough for each of 44 incoming freshmen to receive one before preseason camp starts.
The company hopes both issues are resolved within the next year.
The cost was the biggest hurdle. Typical helmets cost $350. Morris found a way to afford the $1,000 helmet by selling old game-worn helmets through the University of Iowa surplus and cutting down on the number of helmets Iowa repurposes each season.
Newcomers will wear the old Speed Flex helmets this season with Riddell scanning them for custom-fit helmets in December.
Iowa assistant athletic director/chief financial officer Greg Davies was on board with the idea. So was coach Kirk Ferentz, with whom Morris worked closely throughout the entire process.
Most Power 5 conference teams use the customizable helmet for part of their roster, Baron said. Iowa is planning to provide it for every player, thanks to Morris.
“We’ve always been kind of committed that way,” Ferentz said, “Whether it’s the equipment or medical care. We try to make sure our players get the best of everything that way. We’re convinced right now that this is the right thing to do and it can be better for everybody’s health and well-being.”