Extra helmet padding meant to soften hard hits to young footballers

September 1, 2019

Lourdes Hospital of Paducah, Ky., donates safety caps


Ashley Baker is thrilled that the football players in the grade, middle and high school programs for Paducah, Ky., public schools have an extra layer of protection for their heads this year, especially since three of those players are her boys.

Football players in helmets
Paducah, Ky., public school football players try on Guardian Caps donated by Mercy Health – Lourdes Hospital. Athletes will wear the impact-reducing cushions that strap over their helmets only during practices for the time being, but at least one football coach says he thinks extra head protection will become standard equipment.

Spurred by a request from Baker, Mercy Health – Lourdes Hospital donated about 300 Guardian Caps to the football programs. The caps are thickly padded and fit over helmets to provide an added layer of protection for players' heads. The caps cost about $55 each. Guardian Sports, the manufacturer, claims they reduce the impact of crashes by 33 percent.

"They will wear them for every practice," Baker said. "They are not approved for games, pretty much because not everybody has them. But the hope is that soon all schools are in them."


Baker, who is clinical manager for special procedures at Lourdes Hospital in Paducah, said she requested the cap donation after learning that similar helmet covers are used by many college programs.

"If we're protecting grown men, I want our babies protected, too," she said.

Kid tested
And as the mother of three players age 8-14, coordinator for the Paducah program for grades 3-6 and a high school football booster, she was ecstatic that her request was fulfilled. "It just makes me incredibly proud that Mercy Health helped me accomplish this," she said. "It means so much personally and professionally. It's a huge deal for me."


Mercy Health Foundation – Lourdes provided the money to buy the caps. Foundation President Jessica Toren said the foundation usually exclusively funds projects and equipment purchases within the hospital. But the foundation decided this request was a good fit for its mission because "we could be helping these players potentially avoid lifelong injuries," she said.

Toren was on hand when the caps were given to players in July. She told them the new gear was like "airbags for your head." Some of the middle school players told her they had already tested the caps by hitting each other in the locker room and could feel the difference.

Second-impact syndrome
Dr. Jim Ed Couch, a neurologist who practices at Lourdes Hospital, said that studies show the hits athletes take in contact sports can pose short- and long-term risks.


An initial blow to the head can cause problems like headaches, dizziness, temporary memory loss and loss of consciousness, Couch said. Another blow before the injury from the first one is healed can cause "second-impact syndrome" — a condition in which fluid develops around the brain that is potentially fatal.

Studies also show that blows to the head can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain condition associated with personality changes and the development of dementia that might not show up until years after concussions were sustained, Couch said.

Heads-up on risks
He said despite recent findings about the dangers of head injuries, medical researchers don't know what the threshold is for long-term conditions to develop. "That's why we take concussions so seriously now," he said.

Couch said he is all for anything that will lessen the chance of brain injuries for young athletes. Guardian Caps are "a good protective thing we can do just to ensure they'll have less traumatic injury to the brain from the contact they're going to be having."

Jonathan Smith, head football coach and assistant principal at Paducah Tilghman High School, said with all the news coverage of head injuries linked to sports, even the youngest players seem to be aware of the risks.

He said looking out for the safety and well-being of players is the top priority for him and his coaching staff. They always have focused on teaching proper techniques — such as leading with the shoulder and not with the head — so players aren't putting themselves at undue risk when they slam into each other.

But he said that even when using the best practices and precautions, contact sports are violent and pose risks.

"I don't think in contact sports such as football or soccer you can really eliminate head trauma from the game, but I do feel like anything we can do, especially the use of the Guardian Caps, to reduce the potential risk of that happening, to me that's nonnegotiable," Smith said. "To me, that's something we should all do."

Smith said that while the caps are now relegated to practice, he's hopeful that the extra padding will in time be embraced by the people who set the rules for sports equipment in Kentucky. He said they do not inhibit players' performance.

"I think at some point something like this will become part of the standard equipment they use in the game," he said.


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