MHS testing new helmets to prevent concussions

Malibu Sharks wear the Gamebreaker Helmets during summer passing competitions. Photo courtesy of Barron Miller

Last fall The Malibu Times ran an article on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and its institution of preventative measures to protect athletes against brain injury. A year later we explore new measures being taken at Malibu High School.

By Dick Dornan / Special to The Malibu Times

Brace for impact. With the fear of concussions continuing to rise each year among parents, school officials and health professionals, so has the emphasis on safety awareness. Gamebreaker Helmets, a company based in Newbury Park, has developed a product to help lower the risk of head injuries during spring and summer competition when full pads are not allowed.

In the best interests of its players, the Malibu football program invested in the Gamebreaker Helmets as another sign of safety precaution.

“I made the decision to go with them because I wanted to protect the kids as much as possible,” said Malibu Coach Ray Humphrey. “Because of all the concussion stuff that is going around, we bought them for preventative measure and for safety value.”

While the helmets are not designed for full pad contact, and will only be used in spring and summer seven-on-seven scrimmages, it is hoped that reducing the number of head-on collisions players are exposed to out of season will increase player safety overall.

Founded in September of 2011 by former Agoura High standout Joey LaRocque and partner Mike Juels, the Gamebreaker Helmets remind football coaches of the old-school leather helmets worn in the 1920s and ’30s. Weighing only 2.6 ounces, these “soft shell” caps have been designed to offer maximum protection upon impact.

“Schools, organizations and football programs are beginning to realize that there is something out there to protect kids,” LaRocque said. “We offer a product that reduces the risk of head injuries. There is a need for safety and we want to help keep kids safe.”

Three months ago many of the Malibu players were wary of wearing the helmets. But after a collision between two of its players during a spring practice that resulted in concussions for each boy, the Sharks understood the positive that upgrading to the new helmets could provide.

“That sealed the deal for everyone,” Humphrey said. “It was now part of our uniform.”

Wearing the helmets thoughout summer seven-on-seven passing competitions was a positive experience for many of the MHS players, including junior quarterback Dylan Miller and senior linebacker Alden Quartz.

“I thought they were very useful for seven-on-seven drills. It’s a fast game and guys are running all over the place,” Miller explained. “So if you hit heads it’s almost like a helmet in a real game. You get used to them real quick. Some games get really physical and they definitely helped protect us from concussions.”

“I don’t remember one seven-on-seven game where somebody had a concussion,” Quartz added. “In previous years I remember concussions happening all the time. But not this summer. You get to play a little more aggressive and not have to worry about hitting heads as much.”

As for the look and feel of the soft padded helmets, players came away satisfied.

“They are real light and fit well,” Quartz said. “They are comfortable, easy to clean and positive all around.”

Gamebreaker Helmets has outfitted more than 250 schools in Southern California and 300 across the United States. High schools such as Westlake, Oaks Christian, Oak Park, Burbank, Burroughs, and powerhouses Santa Margarita and Servite have joined in the effort to raise safety awareness on the gridiron.

“This was the first summer where I saw multiple schools wearing them,” said Humphrey, who is in his eighth year at MHS. “Now I see them all over the place. People are doing whatever measures they can take to protect the players.”

Doctors from UCLA, USC, Stanford, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina came together to form BRAIN first, a company that conducted tests on soft shell caps and specifically the Gamebreaker Helmets. Studies showed that the risk of head injuries was reduced 30 to 60 percent by the reduction of force or force attenuation.

“For many years the discussion of head injuries got brushed under the rug and coaches would move on to the next season,” said LaRocque, who was an All-Pac 10 performer at Oregon State and played briefly in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. “Now a kid gets hurt and we get a call from the coach the very next day. Schools should be wanting and willing to keep their kids safe.”

The Sharks open their season on September 1 against Saint Monica. Though the Gamebreaker Helmets won’t be used again until spring, Humphrey can be reassured he is taking the necessary steps for safety in his program.

“The emphasis on safety is big time. We want football to keep going on and concussions and those types of injury deter people,” Humphrey said. “If you show them the right way to play and emphasize safety, it eases peoples’ minds. The feedback from the parents has been positive too. They were happy to know we were looking out for their kids. They were saying, ‘thank you for making sure our kids are safe.’”

LaRocque’s passion for football is strong but his impact on the community has been even mightier with the innovation of Gamebreaker Helmets.

“I love football. This company has given us an opportunity to help kids physically and mentally in a very positive way.”