Gladiator Helmet Seeks to Free NFL Players From Concussion Pain

Innovator: Bert Straus
Serial inventor Bert Straus developed a helmet that’s soft on the outside. It could help protect players from concussions—if they can be persuaded to wear it. Photographer: Khue Bui/Bloomberg Businessweek

As an offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers in their glory years, Steve Wallace knew plenty about the pain of concussions.

So when he got clobbered by a linebacker in 1994, Wallace recalls that he expected the familiar aftershock. Instead, Wallace walked away uninjured because he was wearing a foam helmet protector called a ProCap, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Dec. 13 edition.

“I was just waiting for that buzz, that pain you get, but it didn’t happen,” he said.

During a National Football League season marked by head injuries and a quest to protect players from hits to the head and neck, the technology that spared Wallace may be poised for a comeback. Its inventor, designer Bert Straus, has incorporated the ProCap concept into a helmet he calls the Gladiator, with three layers of protection instead of the current two.

The Gladiator has padding on the outside, then hard plastic, then more padding inside to distribute the energy of impact. The face mask is mounted on flexible plastic to absorb blows.

“The answer is not to keep making these things harder,” Straus said, smiling as he bashed his knee with one of his helmets.

The original ProCap was worn in the early 1990s by a handful of players who had suffered concussions. It was a polyurethane foam shell stuck to a standard hard helmet with Velcro. Players thought it looked ridiculous, so it never caught on.

‘Look Cool’

“You wanted to look cool out there,” said Mark Kelso, who as a safety for the Buffalo Bills wore the ProCap because of concussions. Kelso swallowed his pride and said he discovered that it worked well, adding years to his career.

He is an investor in Protective Sports Equipment, Inc., an Edinboro, Pennsylvania, company part-owned by Straus that made both the ProCap and today’s Gladiator, now streamlined so it no longer seems like a prop from “The Jetsons” television cartoon.

As an independent designer, Straus has worked on everything from dental equipment to streetcars. He designed the ProCap in the 1980s after seeing players carted from the field on stretchers. He calls the Gladiator a passion, driven by the conviction that concussions can be stopped by abandoning rock-hard helmets.

Youth, College Market

The NFL says players can wear the Gladiator if it is approved by a national standards group. Straus said he’s seeking approval. The real prize, though, is the much larger market for college and youth teams, which often take their cues from the pros.

One potential roadblock is a claim by some specialists that the foam shell, because blows are absorbed rather than glancing off it, may transfer the energy of a hit from a player’s head to his neck. Straus says the theory isn’t backed by evidence, and Wallace and Kelso say that’s contrary to what they experienced in years of using the ProCap.

“I never had another concussion when I wore it,” Wallace said. “I want the guys out there to know about this.”

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