Tag Archives: Virginia Tech

The Tao of Frank Beamer’s Special Teams

Coach Beamer interviewing with Erin Andrews. Photo by Erich Geist (http://www.flickr.com/photos/virtee/)


“I think the kicking game is one of the most important parts of football. I personally believe the kicking game is just as important as offense and defense. I have believed that since my college days.”

That’s a quintessential Frank Beamer quote showing just how important a place special teams hold in the coach’s heart.

Except it isn’t a Frank Beamer quote—the author is Jerry Claiborne, Beamer’s coach at Virginia Tech, a special teams guru in his own right, and a major influence on the winningest active BCS coach in the game.

I grew up in southwestern Virginia and played high school ball at a time when “Beamerball” was becoming a nationally used term. I remember coaches coming back from Hokie clinics with packaged punt rushes and techniques like practicing kick blocks with Nerf balls.

Beamer’s “secret,” though, was never about tactics or coaching techniques. VT’s tremendous special teams run of blocked kicks and returns for touchdowns was the result of Beamer’s managerial skills. He took Claiborne’s emphasis and magnified it to a degree probably not seen before in major football.

First, Beamer invested his coaching staff in the philosophy. If you watch a VT game on television, you’ll hear at some point that Beamer is the squad’s “Special Teams Coach,” and that he takes personal responsibility for the performance of his kick units. This isn’t the easiest responsibility in the world—just ask Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson how his stint with special teams went.

What you don’t hear as much is that each of Beamer’s assistants is responsible for a particular aspect of the kicking game. Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster, for example, coaches the punt- and kick-blocking teams.

Even more important, though, is how he gets buy-in from the players. To give a frame of reference, most teams (at every level of play) don’t pay much attention to the kicking game, with the following habits being pretty common:

• Special teams practices are squeezed into short sessions at the end of practices, or held before or after the main practice block.
• If you have a role on a special teams unit, it likely means you don’t have what it takes to contribute to offense or defense (even at tiny high schools.)
• The kickers wander off into an empty field away from the rest of the team to kick and send text messages.
• Players run through the drills at half speed because they don’t want to be killed in the conditioning sessions that often follow.
• Film sessions ignore kicks that don’t result in points or turnovers.

Add these practices to the fact that special teams wreak havoc on the body and it’s easy to see why they don’t have much allure.

Beamer flipped this trend on its head and put Claiborne’s mantra to work. He schedules special teams work for the middle of the practice day. He often puts his best players on special teams—it’s still a common to see Tech’s best DB, receiver, or tailback returning kicks. Beamer promotes these duties as a way to playing in the NFL, where low-ranked and undrafted rookies often have to play their way from the kicking game to having a shot on offense or defense.

The placekickers also have the importance of their work elevated by a “one-kick” drill. For this drill, held often during the week, the kickers are given a single shot at making a field goal from a given spot on the field. No do-overs or excuses. The entire team stops to watch the kick, which ratchets up the tension and simulates a game day experience.

Beamer also gives out benefits and attention normally lavished on important starters. Units that spend their time running up and down the field are excused from a number of sprints and conditioning drills. After games, Beamer names both a special teams player-of-the-week as well as a “Kahuna” moniker for the special teamer with the biggest hit. During the week, all the units meet regularly and get timely feedback on their practices.

Finally, Beamer sets the same kind of clear and measurable special teams goals that offenses and defenses have been assigned since the game began. For 2011 some of those goals were:

• Average 10 yards per punt return
• Return kickoffs to at least the 28 yard line 60 percent of the time
• Block a punt, field goal or extra point, or force a bad kick at least once a game
• Gain 20 yards of comparative field position in the punting game each game

Goals like these have been met with success. Since Beamer started at Tech in 1987, his special teams have tallied 19 punt returns for TDs, 17 blocked punts for the same, nine kickoff returns for scores, four TDs from blocked kicks, and even returned a fumble for a score. Altogether, that’s 50 special teams touchdowns.

It’s true that other teams have learned from Beamer’s example, and the Hokies no longer hold the undeniable edge they once did. Opponents put better players on the field, and the shield punt has taken away VT’s aggressiveness much the same way the spread and option games have dialed back the ferocity of their defense. Looking at intangible items, it seems the Hokies now endure a counteraction to everything good they do in the special teams game. A strong return team will be balanced by weaker kickers. Odd breaks (such as Michigan’s fake field goal in the Sugar Bowl) feel tilted against the squad.

Even playing their most talented players yields mixed results. Return man Dyrell Roberts nearly saved a Hokies contest versus the Crimson Tide, though playing that same role led him to endure two nasty injuries he never seemed to recover either physically or mentally from. Conversely, a phenomenal talent like David Wilson never consistently lived up to the promise of his athleticism.

Unsurprisingly, Beamer’s reaction has been to redouble his efforts with the special teams, including using more scholarships for stars and recruiting harder for both the blue-chippers and the hidden gems who often walk on to football squads. He’s thrown several tactics at the shield punt, and he’s solidifying his kicking group. While I don’t think Tech’s special teams (or any other school for that matter) will soon reach the same  apex reached during their days in the Big East, I imagine we’ll see marked improvement over the next few seasons. And that will give opposing coaches something to worry about.

Sneaking onto Lane Stadium’s sidelines

Sneaking into football venues is an American tradition.  John Madden’s account of infiltrating 49ers’ games is an historical tableau unto itself: hitchhiking and street car rides, his attending buddy John Robinson (who himself would coach the LA Rams and Southern Cal), spying the beat security and running the gates three hours before kickoff to watch grizzled men with raw hands and fake teeth pummel each other.  I can’t say my sneak-story holds a candle to Madden’s, especially since the game I surreptitiously entered was a free exhibition, and for an accomplice I had a legal guardian.  But then again, I think my tale holds a few points of distinction.

I’ll tell you right now that it was either the ’97 or ’98 vintage of Virginia Tech’s Maroon-White spring game we attended, but even after reading write-ups for both I can’t be certain as to which it actually was.   Memory’s a fickle thing.  I wasn’t much of a college football fan then, much less a Virginia Tech fan.  Living about 30 miles away from the campus I’d felt suffocated by the school’s relentless representation in southwest Virginia.  So my dad’s idea of heading to Blacksburg for the annual intrasquad scrimmage was an afternoon diversion and a chance to watch some live football, but not much else.  I don’t even think I knew my dad rooted for Tech—I’d considered him an agnostic in terms of fandom, though it turns out I had misinterpreted his low-key style when it came to enjoying frivolous things.

South side of Lane Stadium, 2000; photo courtesy Techsideline.com

The Lane Stadium you see today is a bit different from the late 90’s model, as the team then was on the verge of becoming a nationally-known power.  Most pertinent to my story is the fact that where today the stadium’s a closed ring of towering seats that create a concrete echo-bowl, fourteen or so years ago the south endzone was just a concave patch of grass with piddly bleachers, a few trees, and some chainlink fence that was more for defining boundaries than it was keeping people out.  I saw some people moving towards the main gates at the north end of the stadium, though we veered towards this less-developed patch.

“I think the entrance is over that way,” I said.

“Let’s go on around this side.”

Then we were inside the stadium—literally inside it, because we were walking the edge of the endzone.  I didn’t know the names then, but we’d crossed the plane from Lane Stadium to Worsham Field.  We were on the sideline with the Virginia Tech Hokies.  The Maroon and White squads were already clamoring around the endzone to either complete or confound a scoring drive.  It was pretty safe to say the few thousand people in the stands didn’t have a view as interesting as ours.

“What if they kick us out?” I asked after we’d edged closer to the ten yard line, and then the twenty.

“We’ll just say you’re a recruit here visiting.”

To the theory’s benefit, I recall that I was proudly wearing the year’s latest round of football shirts from my alma mater.  To the theory’s detraction, my alma mater was single-A Glenvar High, and I was somewhat unimposing even for a student from such a small school—let’s say 5’11” and a buck-fifty when well-fed, hydrated, and in cleats and helmet, and so lacking in natural athleticism that I played line despite my stature.

“I’ll have to tell them I’m a kicker,” I said, not realizing I’d probably be the smallest kicker ever recruited by VT, and also one who’d have a hard time kicking the broad side of a barn, much less kicking a ball into it.

Beyond the thrill of walking through the endzone and our pieces of conversation, I can’t say I remember anything too specific about the scrimmage.  Memory’s a fickle thing.  I remember being a bit scared the whole time, figuring a sheriff’s deputy or state trooper was inbound to escort us out.  I remember a blur of jerseys with numbers that didn’t mean a thing to me, and a few sentences trying to figure out who was who.  Talking about those two players with the weird names that began with a ‘P’ (Pegues and Prioleau—and I’m not 100% sure if it actually happened then, since we’ve had the same conversation a few times over the years.)  I don’t remember much speaking because we’re both quiet during games.  For us, a calm place with a good all-22 view and leg room is where it’s at.  Nosebleeds and a patch of empty seats?  Priceless.

I wish I’d written about it right after I got home, especially since we didn’t have any pictures. Until now, the only narrative I’d produced regarding that day was actually made on the Lane Stadium sidelines: I came up with a convoluted alter ego should I have needed to bluff my way into resembling an expert on the art of the field goal. It was a perfect afternoon and I should’ve known my memory couldn’t begin to do it justice.  In retrospect, the perfection was probably why I didn’t put the afternoon to paper.  I dwelled too much on the disappointments of life.  Probably still do.

I talked with my dad this past Father’s Day about his recollections.  We usually chat about the game every time a new season rolls around, but it’s pretty much limited to one of us saying to the other “Remember that spring game?” and then laughing.  He reminded me that we’d arrived late and the game was already underway.  Our turn towards the south endzone was a “what the heck” moment on his part, decided on the fly.  He seemed to remember walking through an open, vehicle-sized gate in the fence, and reminded me that when we got inside the squads were piling into each other at the near endzone.  We didn’t move closer until they were back at midfield; Frank Beamer and another coach had glanced at us a few times when we started making our way downfield, but that was it.

He also remembered Nick Sorensen (who became a journeyman special teamer in the NFL) playing safety.  I vaguely remember him a little at QB—he stuck out in my mind for having long hair—but that could just be other games or years intruding.  The weather was overcast, but he didn’t remember rain.  He remembered Prioleau running the ball, but going by position it was more likely to be Pegues (imagine that.)  Neither of us recall the score or who scored, which would be a help since the ’97 game was one-sided, and the ’98 game a mutual offensive struggle.

What we did remember was easily enough to cement it as our best shared gameday at VT.  That said, it only competes with a sour loss to BC in 2003 that was made worse by an annoying bit of school color seated behind us, and a blowout over a Duke a few years later where we got to the stadium way too early and spent the morning eating our way through town from the Farmer’s Market to Joe’s Diner.  From that game I remember recognizing a gap exchange problem during the game, a student in front of us insisted on repeatedly calling a single-high defense “Cover 2,” and a Duke fan predicting a heckler would eat his words come basketball season, and not much else.

Despite not knowing exactly when it happened, I rank that game with two other days: a weekend jaunt to the Virginia Highlands Festival with my mom, and the day I proposed to my wife by the Cascades’ frozen falls.  I’d say all three are just about perfect memories.  I still have an uncashed check I won for a writing contest from the festival, so I can peg that event perfectly in space and time.  I’m also 1-for-1 in nuptial attempts, so the proposal bit has a timestamp, too.

But then, maybe vagueness enhances the Maroon-White game.  The only things clearly affixed in our skulls are the important aspects and emotions.  If I’m lucky enough to live so long, all the details of things I’ve held dear will fade.  That game will likely be one of the last to dim because it is already distilled down to its essentials—were it a “Wild Turkey” memory (as would befit the Hokies), it’d come from a well-aged, single-barrel batch of limited size—an American Spirit, perhaps.  I’ll even argue that the memory is well-aged from time, and drew flavor from other memories of family and fandom.  If there hadn’t been a Michael Vick or if I’d spent my undergrad years at a liberal arts college in the snowbelt, the game wouldn’t seem so special.  The same would be the case if my dad didn’t routinely make weekend treks to my house to watch the Hokies and eat barbecued chicken until we both look bloated.

Regardless of why or to what degree, that game was a fixture moment for me.  I suppose I’ve hedged by finally putting my thoughts on it to paper, and by finally searching for supporting details.  Whatever this transcription means, it’s trivial.    What’s important was a special day spent with my dad.   I hope anyone reading this has had a few similar days of their own.

Conference Realignment and Academics, Revisited

Following-up on my last post, it looks like there’s some new info to add to how we look at the academic side of conference realignment, and in particular how realignment impacts admissions.  Two doctoral students at UGA have just presented a paper that looks to be the first stab at figuring out just how much switching conferences can impact admissions.  The students–Dennis Kramer and Michael Trivette–believe they’ve constructed a formula using public data sets that allows them to quantify how conference realignment can impact admissions.  What they found was schools that switch conferences experienced bumps in admissions numbers and test scores, and a slight improvement in admitted students actually enrolling, when compared to institutions that didn’t move (which served as a control group.)

More specific to the current ACC/Big 12 hoopla, Kramer and Trivette note that three years after their staggered entrances into the ACC, Boston College and Virginia Tech had 37% and 16.6% increases in applications, respectively, that were owed to realignment.  Further south, TCU’s switch from Conference USA to the Mountain West was deemed responsible for a 50% surge in applications.  This indicates that the desirability of enrolling at these schools improved, which the authors speculate is due to increased/displaced media exposure. Of course, what everyone wants to know is what the next switch (real in TCU’s case, potential in VT’s) would bring, though that’s beyond the scope of this work.

The catch in all of this is that there isn’t much way to verify the authors’ methodology.  Judging from an article on their work and an included research brief drafted by Kramer and Trivette, it looks like they’re adjusting for the right broad factors, such as athletics success and institutional prestige, though their method is built off another paper that isn’t cited in-depth.  I’m not a statistician, but I’m pretty sure the massive upward swings experienced by the three schools mentioned above during the study period would be considerable headaches to adjust for. Also, since it’s a conference paper, the review controls might not be as strict as what you’d find in a journal (I admit this last concern stems from personal observation.)

Still, I’d wager that these results indicate a real trend, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the percentages themselves supported by subsequent research.  Don’t let the authors’ student status fool you–doctoral work breaks a lot of new ground, UGA’s higher ed program is well-regarded, and Kramer in particular has a strong background in the field.

Chronicle article on their work: http://chronicle.com/blogs/players/does-switching-athletics-conferences-lead-to-academic-gains/30227

Research Brief (PDF):  http://chronicle.com/blogs/players/files/2012/06/AIR_realignment.pdf

Concussions and Youth Football

Over the past month, I’ve reported on several lectures given by prominent concussion researchers; you can read my earlier pieces on these sessions here:

Part 1:  http://secondlevelfootball.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/football-and-brain-injury/

Part 2:  http://secondlevelfootball.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/helmet-research-at-virginia-tech/

The most recent lecture focused on youth concussions, and was given by Dr. Mariecken Fowler, a prominent neurologist, researcher, and regional resource on concussions in western Virginia.  This final piece addresses Dr. Fowler’s points along with all the youth-focused topics that came-up during prior presentations.

Helmet Research and Concussion Prevention

Let’s return to Dr. Stefan Duma’s helmet research at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics (CIB).  In addition to studying college players, Duma has also studied helmet impacts with a local youth team.  Seven players (aged 7-8) were monitored through the course of the season.  While the number of subjects monitored is low (and the results confined to one team), the findings are worth knowing, and will likely be corroborated as the number of youth teams monitored increases.  First, the VT team recorded several instances of high acceleration that came disturbingly close to approaching the levels obtained by college players.  This is possible because, while the youth players don’t reach the speeds of higher-level squads, they have far less muscle mass and control to dampen impact acceleration.  Several of the high-g tackles Duma showed involved the players getting tackled from the side or behind.  The acceleration came from the players’ heads shaking, to use Duma’s phrase, like bobble-head dolls.

Picture of the youth football team monitored by Virginia Tech researchers, with insets showing the custom-built Six Degrees of Freedom accelerometer system (photo courtesy Virginia Tech.)

Second, the youth players received more head impacts than expected.  Why?  Because youth players not only act like bobble-head dolls, but they’re roughly built like them.  Children have proportionally larger heads than adults, and their helmets are built to adult proportions, which makes them even larger targets and harder to keep stable.  Essentially, the helmets occupy so much space that it’s difficult for a child to tackle or block without a helmet strike (which is usually helmet-to-helmet) and difficult to control the extra helmet mass when it’s in motion.

Third, the head impacts—especially hard ones—occurred mostly during practice.  The paper published from this research noted that 76% of +40g hits and 100% of +80g hits were practice hits; these hits generally also involved the higher levels of rotational acceleration Duma’s team found.  Even when comparing a single average practice to a single average game, 15% more head hits occurred during an average practice.  This is in distinct contrast to high school, college, and pro football, where the worst hits occur on gameday, and reflects the play style of youth leagues.  Youth football games involve lots of lateral movement and angle tackling, and relatively few “lined-up” hits made with a full head of steam.  Practice drills, though, frequently involve running-start tackling and blocking drills that produce greater impact speeds.  A related trend is the greater percentage of hits to the side of the head relative to higher levels of play.  This is largely due to the prominence of angled tackles into the sides of players; these hits also increase the likelihood of a tackled player bouncing the side of his head against the ground at the end of the tackle.

The CIB team and observers from other schools offer some guidelines for limiting hard hits in youth football:

  • Make sure helmets are properly inflated so that they can effectively distribute impacts.
  • Teach head-up hitting on offense and defense, which places the head in a strong position and limits movement during collisions.
  • Reduce full-speed, running-start tackling and shedding drills—particularly head-on drills—during practice, and instead focus on slower, single-player drills that reinforce fundamentals.

I’d hypothesize that bracing and controlled tumbles might improve players’ abilities to counteract head forces, though there’s no evidence to back this up (it may very well be that youth players don’t have the proprioceptive development to benefit from such drills.)

One more point comes from UNC’s Kevin Guskiewicz, who conducts helmet research and advises the NFL.  He comments that preventing children from playing youth leagues may set them up for greater risk if they play on varsity and junior varsity football teams later in life.  This is because inexperienced players lack tensing and safety skills that are developed in youth football.

When Prevention Isn’t Enough

When concussions happen, immediate recognition is essential.  This isn’t possible without a safety-minded approach.  Coaches, parents, and attending medical professionals should investigate big hits and hits that involve players’ heads whipping or rapidly rotating.  A player who’s gotten his or her “bell rung” has had a minor concussion, so make sure you take kids through an appropriate concussion questionnaire after big hits.  To make sure these steps happen, all coaches should be educated on concussions, even if a medical professional is available.  Though this isn’t a replacement for a thorough training series on concussions, the CDC recommends coaches to suspect a player of having a concussion if the child:

  • Appears dazed or stunned
  • Is confused about assignment or position
  • Forgets an instruction
  • Is unsure of game, score, or opponent
  • Moves clumsily
  • Answers questions slowly
  • Loses consciousness (even briefly)
  • Shows mood, behavior, or personality changes
  • Can’t recall events prior to hit or fall
  • Can’t recall events after hit or fall

If it seems a concussion has occurred, pull the player from the practice or game, and find a calm location to place them until they can be taken to a doctor.  If a parent isn’t on-hand, the child should be supervised by a medical staffer or coach until the parent can arrive.  Follow-up care is critical; Dr. Mariecken Fowler of Winchester Neurological Consultants notes that problems can arise when children are evaluated and cleared to play by doctors unfamiliar with concussions (included were troubling incidents involving fringe specialists clearing children far too early.)  It’s also routine now for victims of head injuries to receive precautionary scans to rule-out undetected vascular issues that could arise from trauma.

If you’re a parent and notice acute headaches, nausea, irritability, or mood swings that occur unexpectedly after a practice or a game, you may be witnessing the effects of a concussion.  These symptoms may arise days after the responsible blow; latent symptoms are triggered by things like intense thought (e.g., while taking a test), stress, or physical activity.  Since there are severe, evidence-backed risks involving repeated head blows following a concussion, it’s imperative to make sure your children receive medical attention after a suspected undiagnosed concussion.  This best-known example of this is the case of Zackery Lystedt, a middle school player who received multiple hits during a single game that had him fading in-and-out of a coma for three months, and left him severely disabled.  It’s an extreme example, but illustrates what can happen when mild trauma is worsened by additional damage.

Following the occurrence of a concussion (or likely occurrence of one), the affected child must be rested.  No physical or mental stress can be allowed.  Individuals under the age of 21 are most susceptible to problems with repeated head trauma.  Dr. Fowler notes that sleeping and watching television are two of the safest activities possible.  Sleeping in particular promotes recovery; unfortunately, insomnia can be a side-effect of concussions, which may warrant the use of sedatives.  Concussions may also magnify (or even trigger) depression and impulsive decisions, so it’s probably advisable for parents to monitor their children and keep them out of stimulating environments.   Fowler emphasized this point when recounting the story of a teen who committed suicide while staying active within a few days of receiving a concussion.  While an anecdotal case, the teen’s history was free of mental illness symptoms or prior stressors other than the concussion, which hints strongly that the injury was related to his death.

Fortunately, technology is helping improve concussion diagnoses.  A software suite of note is ImPACT (IMmediate Post-concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing).  You can think of ImPACT as a computerized combination of quizzes and rudimentary video games.  Athletes using ImPACT participate in a pre-season session with the program where they complete a battery of memory and reaction tests.  These pre-season tests serve as baseline measurements.  When players are later suspected of having had a concussion, they are run through the test again; if the second batch of results shows significantly worse brain function, it’s highly likely the athlete has sustained a concussion.  Follow-up tests are administered, and when results have returned to baseline, the player is cleared for a return to sport.

ImPACT isn’t perfect.  It first requires recognition of a concussion or preemptive action on a threatening hit.  There is also chance that intentional “sandbagging” during baseline testing can throw-off later results, though the depth of the test and the player’s inability to know the metrics and scoring probably nullify this aspect.  The biggest limitation by far, though, is cost.  Organizations such as the NFL and Dick’s Sporting Goods have helped pay for youth football safety measures; Fowler remarked that in her geographical area in northwestern Virginia the largest regional healthcare provider agreed to purchase a license and a number of uses (ImPACT works on a pay-per-test model) after a bit of lobbying by concerned locals.  My recommendation is that working with public health systems (or badgering/guilting them into helping) is probably the approach with the greatest chances of success.

Much like imaging diagnostics are improving to the point where we may be able to catch CTE in living subjects, they are also improving in concussion detection.  Fowler believes an MRI technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging may be able to exactly diagnose concussions in the near future.  Of course, this will be cost-hobbled as well due to the expense of MRI machinery, though not in a way easily impacted by worried parents (unless some of those parents are philanthropic millionaires.)

For more information, the CDC provides a thorough, sport-focused look at concussions: http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/sports/index.html

USA Football is a good resource for football-specific information:  http://www.usafootball.com/health-safety/videos-and-downloads

Helmet Research at Virginia Tech

Note: This piece follows-up on my earlier overview of concussion research:  http://secondlevelfootball.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/football-and-brain-injury/

The Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics (CIB) is one of the most impressive injury research institutions around.  While it’s best known for studies performed by the Virginia Tech branch on football helmets, the Center is a diverse operation.  The bulk of the VT head injury office’s floor-space is actually devoted to classified military research, mainly related to vehicle crashes and IED impacts.  The institute also studies the safety of civilian vehicles in crashes and the safety of children’s toys; the Wake Forest portion conducts a great deal of automotive work.

The CIB operates from within the VT-WF School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.  Running the school is Dr. Stefan Duma, who also happens to be the man responsible for kick-starting modern helmet research and making it a topic of public interest.  Duma has co-authored hundreds of papers on impact injuries; his work has lately included research on head impacts in baseball players, how organs are affected by crashes, and how vehicle-related impacts affect pregnant women.  Duma has also been the key force behind the rapid growth and rising prominence of biomedical engineering at VT.

Almost all of his head-safety projects (as well as those of the faculty, staff, and students beneath him) are funded either by the National Institutes of Health, which is a federal organization that awards research grants to promising health projects, or the Department of Defense.  The Center for Injury Biomechanics takes no money from the companies whose products are researched; even speaking fees are donated to youth football programs for the purpose of buying safer helmets.

Monitoring Player Impacts

Virginia Tech’s work in the field of helmet safety can be broken into two parts—lab experiments and fieldwork.  The fieldwork ramped-up shortly after Duma’s arrival in 2000.  Since there was little data on what happened on the college football field with regard to helmet impacts, that was where work needed to start.  The first major step was outfitting 38 Hokies with HITS, or Head Impact Telemetry System, which is an electronics suite manufactured by Simbex.

Helmet Impact Telemetry System; the piece at lower-left is the helmet sensor suite.  Image courtesy Simbex.

HITS includes both computerized impact-reporting devices consisting of helmet sensors and the sideline computers that monitor the helmet sensors.  The helmet sensors are simple accelerometers that measure linear and rotational impacts.  They’re housed in a flexible plastic strip that also contains a battery and WiFi transmitter.  The strip mounts inside a player’s helmet, where it fits between the side and crown cushions.

The collected data is wirelessly transmitted to a laptop computer on the sideline where it’s not only stored for later analysis, but also used for real-time monitoring of how hard (and where on their heads) players are getting hit.  You’ll see images and TV footage of the computer being carted around inside a formidable looking crate packed with black egg crate cushioning (included in the image above), and you’ll also see all of it–computers and carrying crate–contained within a clear, rainproof plastic housing that looks like it could double as protection for the Pope.  HITS also includes pagers that medical staff can wear to receive instant alerts on high-g impacts.

The entire VT team is being monitored by HITS, as are the teams for several other schools.  This means nearly every single hit experienced by thousands of players across the country has been pooled and analyzed.  The upshot is that undiagnosed concussions have been greatly reduced in teams using the equipment, perhaps to the point of being eliminated.

In my previous post I mentioned how a Tech player stayed on the field after receiving a concussion.  The player was Brandon Manning in 2003; despite the concussion, he not only stayed on the field but led the Hokies with 16 tackles in the game.  Since Manning stayed in the game, the concussion went unnoticed by trainers. Manning himself didn’t think enough of the hit to report it.

Thanks to HITS, Tech researchers/trainers are now notified immediately when any player’s head receives an impact acceleration at or near concussion-levels.  When this happens, the player is immediately pulled from the practice or game for an evaluation—the system is even fast enough to routinely have players pulled from the field between plays.  Its main limitation is signal problems encountered by players at the edges of the endzone.

Testing Helmets in the Lab

When enough impact data was collected, it was time to test helmets in the lab.  This required that many varieties of adult football helmets be subjected to controlled impact testing.  As the picture below shows, the process isn’t too different from using a crash test dummy in a car.  The testing device is called a drop tower, and consists of a dummy head fixed to a vertical frame, which itself is fixed to an impact platform.  Helmets (without facemasks) are fixed to the dummy head and dropped from various heights and with various parts of the helmet shell hitting the platform.

Drop tower prior to helmet-mounting; standing at right is Stefan Duma. Image courtesy Virginia Tech.

The ability of the helmets to dampen various blows is measured and applied to probability data collected from the thousands of actual impacts recorded in on-the-field testing.  This mix of helmet resilience and risk data is called STAR, or Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk.  Fittingly, the helmets are judged on a “star” scale, with 5-star helmets providing the most protection against severe acceleration, and helmets with fewer stars performing less-well as the stars are reduced.

The results of these tests are made publicly available at http://www.sbes.vt.edu/nid.  The first batch of results ran counter to the expectations of some, particularly in terms of helmet cost and intent.  First, higher cost didn’t necessarily correlate to greater impact reduction—several 4-star helmets cost less than a similarly priced helmet that was demonstrated to be the worst tested.  Second, as a few coaches at the Duma presentation I attended noted, several helmets marketed at skill positions showed better safety performance measures than some helmets marketed for use by players in the box.

Research Limitations

There are some limitations to what the CIB is doing with researching helmet safety and concussions.  Their goal is reducing high-risk head collisions either by improving helmet safety or reducing practices that lead to high-risk head collisions.  It’s important to realize that their work is informed by well-documented research on acute brain injuries.  While they’re certainly creating data that’ll be useful in measuring long-term health outcomes of concussions, we don’t have enough information to really understand the risk factors.  The CIB researchers also aren’t in the position of commenting on the long-term effect of sub-concussive impacts.  That’s the realm of epidemiologists and clinical neurologists, not biomechanics and engineering folks.  I think the smart money is that the CIB’s work is going to improve long-term outcomes for football players across the country, but that’s still far from proven.

More specifically, we have to understand that the end result of their work will not be a concussion-proof helmet.  Creating a helmet that would allow for the game to continue being played as-is while also being impervious to concussions is beyond our current technology.  The CIB’s helmet safety guidelines are creating helmets that are better at distributing impact energy, which will reduce head acceleration in properly tensed and positioned players.  Even the highest-rated helmet isn’t of much help in unexpected hits where there’s no muscular tension and skeletal alignment to resist impacts, or in angled hits that the human body has difficulty opposing.

Finally, the team is working on refining its testing methods.  They plan to further investigate the ability of helmets to reduce rotational forces, to test helmet differences at varying temperatures that might alter the properties of the helmet shell and cushion, and possibly to include tests with facemasks.  I doubt any of these refinements would significantly change STAR results–the variables have a measure of theoretical and statistical predictability–though more data is never a bad thing.

Looking Ahead

Because I thought it deserved its own space, I’ll talk about VT’s youth football research (and youth safety issues in general) in a later post.

What We Know (and Don’t Know) About Football and Brain Injury

With the recent deaths of Ray Easterling and Junior Seau, and the prominence of head-shots within the Saints bounty scandal, football-related brain injuries have returned to the news.  Unfortunately for the general public, these reports don’t contain much useful information on the injuries and their causes, diagnoses, and treatments.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to listen  and speak to Dr. Stefan Duma of Virginia Tech and Dr. Jeffrey Barth of the University of Virginia, both of whom are leaders in the field of head injury research.  Duma leads the most sophisticated head injury research facility in the country, and also leads the program that monitors head impacts received by VT players during games and practices.  Barth is a member of the NFL Players Association Concussion Committee and co-wrote a study that first put concussions in the public spotlight back in the 80’s.

Comparison of healthy brain tissue to that of a football player and a boxer; slide courtesy J. Barth..

Though the media is focused on repeated blows to the head (and reasonably so), it’s important to note that a single concussion can be extremely harmful.   A concussion is an injury to the brain caused by sudden acceleration.  A common technical term for a concussion is “mild traumatic brain injury,” which highlights its potential seriousness.  Athletes in many sports often play through mild concussions; Dr. Duma showed one clip of a former Virginia Tech linebacker who suffered a concussion during a play, stayed on the field, and nearly started the next play lined-up at deep safety before a teammate redirected him back to the box.  This was in the early days of the program when guidelines were still being established; a player at VT (and other schools with helmet-safety programs) in this situation today wouldn’t return to the field.

Concussions can cause disorientation, nausea, head pain, light sensitivity, unconsciousness, insomnia, mood changes, and memory loss.  The acute effects of a concussion last on average between 5 and 10 days.  Longer-term symptoms generally clear within three months, though extreme examples can last for years.  Children generally take longer to recover.  The typical concussion occurs when the head experiences around 100 g-force of acceleration (or 100 times the acceleration of earth’s gravity).  As a comparison, an amateur boxer’s dominant-hand hook can create about 80 g of head acceleration.

An average player at Virginia Tech will have four incidents of  circa-100 g head acceleration every season.  Interestingly, out of the entire team only about four actual concussions are diagnosed annually, while the rest of VT athletics reports around 26 concussions during the same period.  This speaks to the variability of concussion susceptibility, and also to football players’ ability to tense their bodies in ways that dampen impact forces.  Additionally, Duma notes that his research has lead to VT and other schools to adopt safer helmets and reduce or eliminate drills that lead to excessive head impacts.  Barth noted that rather than follow his committee’s recommended practice guidelines (which would reduce helmeted practices by roughly three-fourths), the NFL ownership installed rules that halved helmeted practices.

Concussions occur because both the head and the brain are each flexibly tethered, and both can independently whip about on impact, causing the sudden acceleration and deceleration responsible for concussions.  We know this movement can actually rip apart the connective links of brain cells, though beyond that we’re less certain about what else happens within the brain during and after a concussion.  We do know that having one concussion increases your risk of having another by 3-to-6 times, though we aren’t sure if this means certain people are simply prone to concussions, or if having one concussion increases your sensitivity to future brain trauma.  This increased risk is especially important to know because having a second concussion (even a minor one) during the acute phase of a prior trauma can lead to serious complications.  The only proven form of concussion recovery is rest and time.

Getting more into the controversy of football and head injuries, we don’t know how to define or quantify the effects of repeated concussions or repeated sub-concussion blows to the head.  It seems that repeated blows can trigger chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a condition that causes both brain deterioration and the harmful accumulation of defective tau protein in the brain.  Symptoms of CTE include chronic and worsening dementia-like memory and cognition loss, as well as depression, aggression, loss of motor control, and disorientation/confusion.  The symptoms generally appear late in a player’s life, though tau deposits are now being found in the brains of middle-aged men, active NFL players, and even teenagers who’ve had multiple concussions.  Over a dozen former NFL/college players have been diagnosed, and if media reports are to be believed, Easterling and Seau both displayed behavioral symptoms consistent with CTE.  Compared to the entire league, this is still a very small sample, which makes it difficult to determine just how frequently CTE occurs.

At the moment, CTE can only be diagnosed by post-mortem examination of the brain.  The Boston Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy that’s frequently referenced in media reports is among the best known institutions performing these examinations, and has done so on the brains of several NFL players.  Dr. Barth notes that Siemens’ healthcare division claims to be 18 months away from deploying PET scan technology capable of detecting CTE in living patients; while PET equipment isn’t nearly as common in hospitals as MRI and CT equipment, it’s a step in the right direction.

Our limited understanding of the brain and impacts is very cloudy.  It may turn out that only a small, definable subset of the 5 million adults, teens, and children currently playing football will ever be at risk for severe and/or long-term brain injury.  Or it may turn out we’re experiencing a sport-related epidemic of lasting brain injury.  We just don’t know.  In this situation, knee-jerk fears can give rise to sham treatments and unwise practices, while apathy can dampen efforts to learn more and create healthier practices.  As Dr. Barth consistently reinforces, we need to be comfortable with the ambiguity of this subject while working towards resolving it.