Last month I ran this ESPN column about the evolution of football helmet innovation. The column was primarily about counterintuitive historical developments but also made prominent (and playfully derisive) mention of the Gladiator helmet, an exterior-padded helmet that’s the latest innovation from Protective Sports Equipment — the same folks who brought us the ProCap back in the 1990s.
Until now, the most extensive article about the Gladiator was a this piece, which ran last fall in Machine Design, a trade magazine. The article contains lots of quotes from Protective Sports Equipment’s founder and president, Bert Straus, but I didn’t quote him in my ESPN column. Why? I had hoped to interview him, but he didn’t return my first call (turns out he was traveling), and then the column shaped up as being more history-oriented than future-oriented, plus I was up against a tight deadline, blah-blah-blah. Bottom line: I discussed his helmet but didn’t get any perspective from him, and that was shoddy reporting on my part.
Better late than never, though. I recently conducted the following interview with Straus, who turns out to be a really interesting guy. His tiny company and his self-effacing, sort of loopy manner are pretty much the diametric opposite of the stiff, corporate-ish feel permeating almost everything NFL-related nowadays, and of course his designs aren’t exactly in the mainstream of the league’s aesthetic either (Straus himself readily acknowledges that the ProCap was “dorky-looking”). Toss in his single-minded fixation on outer-padded headgear and it would be easy to write Strauss off as a Quixotic figure.
But I think that would be a mistake. Sure, you can make fun of the ProCap, but how many things have you designed that made it onto an NFL field? Not many people can make that claim. Strauss fully expects the Gladiator to make its mark on the NFL as well. If he pulls it off, it would be a huge coup, consider how Riddell and Schutt currently dominate the helmet market.
Uni Watch: What’s your background, and how’d you get into this type of work?
Bert Straus: I’m an industrial designer. I had a consulting office in product design for 40 years, working for clients like GE, Universal-Rundle, and so on.
UW: What sorts of things were you designing?
BS: For GE, we worked on light rail vehicle design. Universal-Rundle, we did bathroom fixtures. For Midmark, it was dental units.
UW: You mean toothbrushes?
BS: No, all the stuff you see around the chair at a dental office.
UW: The drills and the rinse mechanisms and all that?
BS: Yeah, and the caddies for ’em [additional dental examples here and here, and non-dental projects here and here]. All that stuff. Anyway, in the process, about 20 years ago, as a football fan, I saw a college game where a couple of players went down from a head-to-head hit. And I thought, “Gee, what if you could insert a giant pillow in between the two helmets.” That notion kind of stuck with me, and I pursued it when I had rainy day time — it wasn’t a project that anyone asked me to do. I had a lot of experience with materials and processes, so I started to work on the concept of getting padding on the outside of a helmet.
UW: And that’s how the ProCap came about?
BS: Yes. The tests worked out, and investors got really excited about it and pooled their money, bought stock, and a corporation was born. Like I said, that was about 20 years ago. So ProCap goes into the market and has a seven-year history in the NFL — a real positive history.
UW: I’ve heard conflicting accounts about who wore the ProCap. I know Steve Wallace and Mark Kelso wore it, because I’ve seen photos and even remember seeing them wearing it back in the day. What about Steve Tasker?
BS: He never wore it, but Don Beebe did. And Randy Dixon of the Colts as well. Those are the guys who wore it pretty regularly. You should talk to them, especially Steve Wallace — maybe you can find out why his ProCap was all beat up in that one photo. That turned my stomach when I saw that.
UW: Yeah, that must have been like seeing your child getting beaten up in a fight or something.
BS: I think it would turn the stomach of a more dispassionate observer too, because that just looks like a crap material. And we’re proud of our material — in fact, our general manager gives me hell because he says they don’t wear out fast enough so we don’t get enough repeat sales.
UW: Not enough planned obsolescence, eh?
BS: That’s it, that’s it!
UW: Did you ever do any work with Riddell or any of the other helmet manufacturers, back in your pre-ProCap days?
BS: No. But we’ve had a relationship with Riddell and Schutt more recently. I mean, here we were, we come on the field with this new accessory that basically says, “Your helmet isn’t doing such a great job.” So it’s an adversarial relationship. Now, they were never too concerned about us in terms of competition, because we’re small and weren’t much of a factor. But we made them nervous from a product liability perspective, and the two companies took two different approaches in terms of how to handle that.
UW: And what were those approaches?
BS: With Riddell, it was mostly dirty tricks and politics — floating ugly rumors about us, none of them substantiated by science, that sort of thing. With Schutt, if anyone approached them and said, “We’re thinking of using the ProCap accessory, what do you think about that?,” their response was, “We don’t recommend its use — our helmet’s plenty good. However, if you want to find out more, here’s their 800 number.” So they were actually giving out our 800 number.
UW: Wow — that’s the Miracle on 34th Street approach. Did Riddell or Schutt ever express any interest in buying the ProCap concept from you?
BS: No. And eventually I made the decision that for our company to survive, we needed to have this technology integrated into a full system [instead of a separate accessory].
UW: So that’s the Gladiator — all the benefits of the ProCap in a fully integrated helmet system.
BS: Right. And all the data supporting this approach is there on our web site, conducted by respected institutions, and we paid for none of it, incidentally — it was all done independently.
UW: Did the other companies ever express any interest in buying the Gladiator concept?
BS: I actually went out to see Schutt about four years ago, when the Gladiator was still in its developmental stages. They expressed some interest — everything was on the table, and it still is. I think they’re kinda watching to see how we do when we actually bring the product to market. Riddell, meanwhile, has called us. “Understand you’ve got a new helmet under development with pretty good performance. But what about market acceptance?” I’m condensing what they said, of course. And I said, “You’re absolutely right, that’s why we’re having a market research firm look at that right now. Maybe we should talk after that’s done.” And they said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” I’ve basically held them off at arm’s length for over a year now, but I’m expecting we’ll talk again soon. They could get religion!
UW: Let’s talk about your company, Protective Sports Equipment. Is the company essentially just you, or do you have a staff, or what?
BS: It’s a small company, but we’re backed up by about 50 shareholders, and financing also comes through the Ben Franklin Technology Partnership of Pennsylvania.
UW: Does the company have any other products, besides the ProCap?
BS: No. But if the Gladiator meets our projections, we plan to go into a whole bunch of other helmets.
UW: You mean like lacrosse, hockey, and so on?
BS: We’re also gonna look at recreational markets.
UW: Let’s go back to the ProCap. Is it technically still approved for NFL use?
BS: Back in the mid-’90s, when I frankly don’t think the league was very serious about concussions, they got bad biomechanical advice from a consultant, who told them he believed the ProCap could cause serious injury or even death. He didn’t have any science at all to back that up, no testing, just conjecture, against a whole series of tests that were done by the Penn State biomechanical lab. Anyway, all of a sudden the ProCap disappeared from the field of play because of this memo that was sent out. And Riddell got hold of that memo and distributed it themselves, and there was a big brouhaha over that.
UW: But whether or not it’s recommended, is it still technically approved for use? If an NFL player wants to wear the ProCap today, can he?
BS: I believe so, yes. But if you do so, it’s totally at your own risk [because Schutt and Riddell’s position is that if you wear the ProCap, you void the helmet’s warranty], and no player in his right mind is going to do that. Especially since the average player doesn’t want to wear the dorky-looking thing to begin with.
UW: Now let’s talk about the Gladiator. Its basic concept is to have a soft exterior, instead of a hard shell. But some of the archival articles I linked to in my recent ESPN column described a outer-padded helmet from the 1960s…
BS: Yes, MacGregor had one.
UW: Spalding, too. But as I understand it, one problem they discovered with that approach was that the soft exterior led to more friction — either helmet-on-helmet or helmet-on-ground — which increased the risk of neck injuries.
BS: We were well aware of that when we were developing the ProCap. And all of that criticism was correct. But the big difference is that the materials and technologies that were available in the 1960s were a helluva lot different that what we had access to 30 years later. We use a reaction-molded polyurethane, which is primarily what automobile bumpers are made from now, and there’s all kinds of give at the point of impact. That’s why they don’t use hard bumpers anymore. That basic analogy holds true for head protection. And someday — I may not end up as the guy who makes it happen, but someday, trust me, all helmets are going to have a resilient outer surface.
UW: So you’re saying that in addition to the resilience, it’s slick enough so that you don’t have that friction problem?
UW: So what’s the Gladiator’s current status? That article in Machine Design said it was approved for NFL use next year, but you’ve told me that’s not true.
BS: Yeah, the article got that wrong. We’re working with the NFL. We’ve made presentations to their medical committee.
UW: So they know what you’re up to.
BS: Oh, yeah. We’ve gotten out of that adversarial relationship. The turning point was when they hired Dr. David Viano as their biomechanical and medical consultant. He does good science, he’s a dispassionate scientist, and he says numbers are what they are.
UW: Do you have a timetable for when the Gladiator would be approved for use, and when it would be available for retail?
BS: We’re in the final stages of development right now, so we’re hopeful we can get onto the field in 2008.
UW: This fall?
BS: We hope so, yeah. After we do all the certification, we’re going to do a field survey at the high school level. We’d like to have that in process, so it’s demonstrated that field experience backs up lab numbers. We’d like to have that underway before we introduce it to the NFL or at retail.
UW: Do you consult with the NCAA as well?
BS: Only to the point where we’d show them the certification and ask if they have any problems with putting it on the field.
UW: But you don’t work with them like you do with the NFL?
BS: Right. There’s no real structure for that, actually. When the NFL contracted with Biomechanics in Canada, we resubmitted the ProCap for their consideration, and it showed all the good results it always had. But there were three issues: It was still dorky-looking, it didn’t cover the complete helmet, and it did add weight to the helmet, albeit only 14 or 15 ounces.
UW: But that can be a lot to the player wearing it.
BS: Yes, it can. So that’s one of our goals with the Gladiator, for no other helmet on the market to be lighter than ours.
UW: What do you say to people who think the Gladiator looks dorky, or uncool, or whatever?
BS: I listen to ’em. Our main emphasis is on performance, but we always have an eye on aesthetics, because of the ProCap lesson. Quite frankly, we’re getting a whole lot more positive response on the Gladiator’s look than negative response. Kelso shows it to his high school players and they think it’s cool. I personally showed it to the players at St. Albans in DC, and they thought it was cool. Just last Friday we were up to Penn State, talking to their equipment people, and they were excited about it. In fact, they threw a Riddell Revolution and a Schutt DNA on a table alongside a Gladiator [additional views here and here], and they thought it compared well. And we’ve hired an independent market resarch company to get feedback. But I listen to people when they say, “Well maybe if the facemask matched the color of the helmet shell…”
UW: That’s the comment I’ve heard most frequently. Can you address that?
BS: Oh, absolutely — we can make the whole thing match. Our marketing people are saying we should market this as a “system,” so people can order whatever shell color they want, whatever mask color they want, whatever chin cup color they want, and so on — the interior pads, the straps…
UW: Mix and match.
BS: Right, to suit your own tastes.
UW: A lot of your prototyping is executed in Buffalo Bills motifs. Do you have a connection with the Bills?
BS: We’ve always had a good relationship. They’ve always been very supportive. You know, this is gonna be hard for you to believe, Paul, but we had an earlier version of the ProCap that was uglier yet! I wish I could show you the rest of my portfolio, because I really am a good designer. Anyway, Kelso was wearing this earlier version in practice and was taking all kinds of crap from his teammates, and they sat down with us to help revise it, and that’s how we got to ProCap 2, which was still a dorky-looking thing but at least it was more acceptable. Also, we’re headquartered in Erie, Pennsylvania, which is close to Buffalo. They actually have a ProCap in their trophy case in the lobby of their stadium.
All very interesting. Big thanks to Bert for sharing his story, and for working to make football players’ craniums a bit safer.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Seattle trip went really well. Thanks to everyone who came down to the party — I’ll post photos soon, maybe tomorrow. … In case you missed Joe Skiba’s recent online chat, the transcript is available here. … The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes are going to be holding an American Gladiators Night on May 17th, and will wear this jersey design for the occasion. … This is really great: The Rays are fining all players and other employees $1 each time they refer to the team as the Devil Rays. No word on what the fine is for referring to them as “that suck-ass franchise that can’t get out of its own way” (with thanks to Dominick Carfello). … Arkansas State, which had to drop its “Indians” name because of the recent NCAA rule, has unveiled its new team name and logo (with thanks to Larz Roberts). … Awesome story here about Larry Kwong, the NHL’s first Chinese-American player, who made his debut 60 years ago. Killer photo gallery, too (nice find by Alan Kreit). … Good observation by Caleb Borchers, who writes: “Every time I see a logo for Cellular South, I wonder when Adidas is going to sue them.” … Promising report from Brian Erni, who writes: “I was in the Mets Clubhouse Shop on Thursday and there may be blue news. The premiere jacket for 2008 that has been released to most outlets is black. But when I went in they had a black-and-blue version. I asked about it and apparently the Mets will be wearing one at home and one on the road. Now, the blue jacket does have black in it, but it makes me wonder if maybe the Mets are finally going to use the blue caps as their primary home cap, given Charlie Samuels’s longstanding distaste for pairing the blue caps with back jackets.” … Reprinted from last Thursday’s comments: Bob Probert makes a cameo in the upcoming Mike Myers movie, and they had him wear a Tie Domi jersey, much to Probert’s bemusement. Details (but no photo, alas) here. … The weird thing about the Lake Erie Monsters’ recent Tie-Dye Night game was that it didn’t include the goalies (thanks to AJ Brandt for the photo). … Did they give Shaq a blank jersey or what? (With thanks to Ryan Mellenwood.) … Through a series of machinations, the web site Brooklyn Met Fan recently got Joe Smith and Billy Wagner to wear “Go Big Pelf” T-shirts (in honor of pitcher Mike Pelfrey, natch), and then got Pelfrey himself to pose with a big fan (big thanks to Marc Rabinowitz). … The Mets appear likely to host the 2013 All-Star Game, which will be a mere 49 years since the last time they hosted it. … The Red Sox released Doug Mirabelli last Thursday, which means non-roster invitee Kevin Cash — one of the few catchers who habitually wear their helmets with the brim facing forward — has apparently made the team. Cash even wears a forward facing cap during drills. … Al Cummings sent along a scan of the tickets from the upcoming A’s/Bosox season opener in Japan. … After seven Cuban soccer players deserted the team, Leonel Duarte had to wear a makeshift captain’s armband (thanks, Vince). … LSU’s baseball team will be wearing throwbacks on Wednesday (as forwarded by Bryan Stelmack). … The Dodgers/Padres exhibition games in China were, of course, an excuse to trot out a new cap patch (Dodgers, Padres, closer view) and sleeve patch (Dodgers, Padres, closer view). … “In Sidney Crosby’s new Gatorade commercial, he is wearing the Pens’ new jersey the whole time,” writes Matthew Mangis. “And then in the end, when he’s celebrating, he’s wearing last season’s jersey with a ‘C’ on his chest.” … Pretty wild batting gloves being worn by Tadahito Iguchi (as spotted by, of course, Jeremy Brahm). … Louis Olah, who was famous for tending and cleaning the jockeys’ silks at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, has died. … The Celtics wore their St. Paddy’s Day green-’n’-golds on Friday. … No stirrups?! Et tu, Tommy?