As the NFL season gets underway this week, concerns about football-related concussions at all levels of play also return to the spotlight — with good reason. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates as many as 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions take place each year, with football having one of the highest concussion rates.
As a punter on Carnegie Mellon University’s football team in Pittsburgh, Thomas Healy, 22, saw the devastating effects of head injuries firsthand after three of his teammates suffered concussions last season. The incidents inspired him to start a new company called HeadSmart Labs, which uses high-tech solutions to help reduce concussions in football.
Not Impossible Now spoke with Healy to find out more about his work on helmet safety. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q: What led you to create HeadSmart Labs?
Healy: It technically began when I saw my teammates at Carnegie Mellon and my high school [suffer from concussions]. These players would get concussions, and it would be a tremendous drain on their lives. They wouldn’t be able to play sports for awhile. On some occasions, they wouldn’t be able to go to classes. Sometimes, they were out for months, because of these head injuries.
So last year during football season, I had some hypotheses about how helmets could work better and what things could be researched a little better. And I figured I just spent the last four years studying mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, why don’t I actually take those skills that I learned and try to apply it to a sport that I love.
Q: How are you utilizing high-tech solutions in your work?
Healy: What we’re doing is we’re developing a two-body testing structure. Envision two car crash dummies on a sliding rail system that we can collide into each other at varying speeds and varying angles, so that we can better replicate the impact that players are actually receiving on the field.
We’re [also] going to outfit players with accelerometers in their helmets. When the player gets a concussion, we'll be able to look at the data that we collected from the helmet to see what impact they received.
With that, we’ll be able to replicate those impacts on our two-body testing structure, and we’ll gain a much better understanding as to [whether] the helmet worked well during that impact or did not work well.
It's really a way to take the impacts players are getting and see which ones are the most harmful and then replicate those and hopefully come up with solutions that will help prevent those types of collisions from happening.
Q: How does HeadSmart Labs differ from other companies involved in helmet safety?
Healy: We’re looking solely at solutions before the concussion actually happens and trying to prevent the concussion from happening. A lot of other people in the industry are either looking at how do you detect when a concussion happens, how you speed up the rehabilitation process once a concussion happens or how do you rank helmets against one another to see which one’s the better helmet. Our focus is really on before the concussion even happens.
Another thing that sets us apart is we’re staying independent from any helmet manufacturers. We would fear that if we were to partner with a helmet manufacturer that it could potentially skew our data and make some of our results not look as reliable as they should be, so we’re staying completely independent so we don’t run into any of those issues.
Q: How important is it to be working with staff from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh?
Healy: It’s tremendous. From Carnegie Mellon, we’ve got some great engineering minds. We can really look at these helmets from an engineering standpoint and see how they can be engineered better to perform better.
With the doctors we’re working with [from the University of Pittsburgh], they’re bringing the knowledge that these impacts are the ones that cause the concussions.
So we’re really taking great engineering minds and unbelievable minds that are in the concussion research end of things from a medical standpoint and combining them together so we can look at it as a whole picture.
Q: As an expert on helmet safety and concussion issues, is it hard not to think about all of the research that you’re aware of when you’re on the field?
Healy: It definitely comes up, but I think the more that people know the better. When I look back when I started playing football 16 years ago, I didn’t know what a concussion was. When you got hit and you got your bell rung, you kind of shook it off and kept on playing.
But right now, players know what to look for. Coaches know that it doesn’t make sense to keep on playing through the impact. Doctors are very aware of it, and they’re constantly checking to make sure players are still capable and don’t have a concussion.
I think the whole sport and everyone involved with the sport is so much better educated now than they were years ago.
Q: As a punter, what’s the moment like when you take the field?
Healy: When a punter goes into the game, things aren’t going well (laughing)! Your kicker can go into the game and score some points. But when a punter comes in, it’s usually fourth down, you’re far back into your own territory and you’re trying to get the team out of a hole. If you can get a good punt off and pin them inside the 20-yard line, it can really change the team’s morale and get some people fired up.
Q: What was your longest punt during a game?
Healy: I think the longest I’ve ever had in a game was 69 yards.
Watch HeadSmart Labs' video tutorial on inflating football helmets.