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There is no feeling like a tailored suit flowing flawlessly off the shoulders. Two University of South Carolina athletes have taken that feeling to their heads.
They are helping Riddell redefine the fitted hat. The company has manufactured football helmets since 1939, and, through the subsequent seven decades, it has invested countless resources toward improving that first plastic prototype.
Engineers have remodeled the outer shell, reconfigured the chinstraps and repositioned the facemask. However, fitting a helmet has not evolved any further than sizing a T-shirt.
Small. Medium. Large. Extra Large.
The interior padding could be resized and compacted, but it could not conform tightly to every crease, knot, wrinkle, groove or lump in an individual's head.
"Everybody's head is a little bit different. It's like fingerprints," said Thad Ide, Riddell senior vice president of research and development.
For years, Riddell engineers envisioned a method to tailor helmets to any head shape or size. Eventually, technology caught up to their imaginations.
Riddell has utilized cutting-edge, three-dimensional scanning and manufacturing systems to develop Precision-Fit. Through a thorough digital imaging process, engineers craft a 3-D model of a player's head. The model is fashioned into a mold, which is used to assemble custom interior padding.
It ensures the helmet will fit perfectly the first time, every time.
Players from several major colleges, including South Carolina linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams and receiver Bryan Edwards, will wear the custom-fitted helmets this season. The technology could drastically advance player comfort and safety, but the expensive, elaborate manufacturing process could restrict its reach.
A conventional Riddell SpeedFlex helmet retails for approximately $400. A SpeedFlex helmet equipped with Precision-Fit padding costs $1,750. A school could purchase conventional helmets for all 85 scholarship players with approximately $34,000. Providing each player with a Precision-Fit helmet would require $148,750.
The recent trend of teams wearing multiple uniform color combinations would increase that cost. After the $1,750 for the scanning session, molding and initial helmet assembly, each additional helmet costs $1,200. South Carolina players are issued a garnet, a black and a white helmet. Outfitting each player with all three Precision-Fit lids would cost $352,750.
Ide believes the benefits would justify the expense.
"For that individual player, that one helmet might last their entire playing career, whereas before, you might have turned over two or three helmets," Ide said. "We believe there is a protective benefit in having a great-fitting football helmet. Your helmet will be in place on your head every play, every time you're playing."
During the Precision-Fit process, players are first scanned while wearing their preferred Riddell helmet at the desired position. They are scanned a second time without a helmet but while wearing a specially designed scuba hood.
"Our engineering team takes those two scans and marries them together and kind of fills the space between the surface of their head and the inside of the helmet shell," Ide said. "It comes with the player's signature in the padding, so it's got some nice personalized touches to it as well. You look at a player's expression when he puts on the helmet, and it's overwhelming how excited he is about it."
Allen-Williams wore a conventional SpeedFlex helmet last season. His new hat looks identical on the outside, but he asserted that the tailored interior padding makes him feel more secure and safe.
Ongoing studies have linked football players' recurrent head injuries to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The degenerative disease can produce long-term memory loss, speech impediments and mental health disorders.
Neither Allen-Williams nor Riddell is delusional. They realize that, regardless of how comfortable it may be, no helmet can prevent all concussions. Riddell affixes that disclaimer to all its equipment. However, Allen-Williams identifies value in a helmet that never obstructs his vision and never needs adjusting.
"They're trying to move forward, especially with all the stuff about CTE coming out," Allen-Williams said. "A helmet like this that's professionally made to your head and has protection behind it, it's really nice to have."
The entire Precision-Fit process, from scanning to delivery, requires four to six weeks. According to South Carolina director of football equipment operations Larry Waters, the school and Riddell have not discussed plans to extend the technology to additional players.
Waters said that, until then, his staff will exhaust every measure to ensure that players can strap on the most comfortable conventional helmet available.
"When we work with a freshman or a new player comes in, I let him try on several different styles of helmets, so he has the best helmet for him," Waters said. "If a guy has a concussion or anything like that, we've got to work together (with the trainer), and I'll check their helmets again. From shoulder pads to helmets to knee pads, we try to emphasize safety all the time."
Waters may never need to worry about changing a helmet for Allen-Williams and Edwards again through the remainder of their time in Columbia- as long as the Gamecocks do not alter their uniform combinations and the players do not alter their short haircuts.
Wake Forest University linebacker Wendell Dunn was a candidate for a Precision-Fit helmet, but he said engineers could not develop an accurate mold around his dreadlocks. Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst's mane is fit for a Head & Shoulders commercial, but it may not be fit for a custom helmet.
"Hair interferes with the scanning process," Ide said. "You want to remove as much of that artifact as you can. If a player has a lot of hair and gets a haircut during the season, there's a very good chance we're going to have to rescan them and make another helmet for them. It could be a very expensive haircut."
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