A youth flag football coach calls them “goofy,” but it’s an endearing reference delivered with a chuckle.
The head of a prestigious medical clinic says it works.
And a former NFL star and coach at one of the top prep football programs in California says it just makes sense.
Gamebreaker is a new type of protective headgear designed to reduce the threat of concussions and other head injuries for participants in what are considered “non-contact” sports.
Manufactured and distributed by Westlake Villiage-based Gamebreaker, the protective cap is fast becoming required equipment in flag football and at high school 7on7 passing tournaments across the country.
The helmet is essentially a protective cap that can also be used in sports like soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and water polo. The Gamebreaker helmet has foam inserts that cushion impacts and a chin strap and laces that allow users to get a custom fit. The Lycra outer shell also allows for air to flow. This season the helmets are being used by all 100 senior division players in the Conejo Youth Flag Football League, said Greg LeGore, who coaches and handles equipment and logistics for the group.
“Actually they are working out very well for us. They are lightweight and easy to keep clean but most importantly they provide the protection the players need,” LeGore said. “They have gone over so well that next year we will be transitioning the rest of the teams to them.”
This flag league, like some others, allows blocking between the waist and shoulders. Conejo was already using a different style of helmet, LeGore said, but switched to the Gamebreaker because it proved to be more durable.
“We’re a nonprofit league so to buy new helmets every year is not cost-effective for us,” he said.
Gamebreaker was founded by Mike Juels, owner of Corporate Images, a promotional products company. Juels said they began marketing the helmets last summer after the research and development phase. “We’ve gone through extensive testing with these helmets to get the right material that would be lightweight, flexible and washable while at the same time offer a good level of protection to the end user,” Juels said.
The helmets are made in Taiwan with team graphics applied at the corporate headquarters and distribution facility in Westlake Villiage. The base price is $74, plus a $10 fee to add team logos and numbers. Bulk purchases are discounted. Juels declined to say how much they have invested in the company.
“It was mostly trial and error. We spent a lot of money on research and development.” The throwback look was no accident, he said. “That’s kind of where we got the idea,” he said of the style from the 1920s when football was in its infancy. “It was obviously keeping the guys safe back then.”
The popular high school summer passing circuit was their target market. While the players don’t wear pads, they are flying around the field at full speed, and risk injury from accidental collisions or falls. “You’ve got young men entering adulthood going at full speed and (they) don’t have the ability to control their bodies and they were getting hurt, this gives them the opportunity to be as safe as possible.”
Concussions have become an increasing concern over the past several years for athletes competing in a variety of sports at the professional and amateur levels. For example, the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center is part of a university consortium that has received a $400,000 grant from the National Collegiate Athletic Association to examine the effects of head injuries on student-athletes over the course of their college careers and beyond.
“There is growing concern about the cumulative effect of concussions on long-term cognitive health, and yet our current understanding of what factors contribute to later problems is inadequate,” said Dr. Christopher Giza, the study’s principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, said in a statement.
“One major goal of this research is to identify these factors so that the risks for chronic problems can be minimized.”
Gamebreaker has already received a passing grade from Dr. Steven D. Schwartz, the Ahmanson professor of ophthalmology at UCLA and chief of the Retinal Division at the university’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. Schwartz’s son Harry, a football player at Brentwood High School, also played on an elite summer passing team – 1925 All Stars run by BMOC, a Sherman Oaks-based company founded by former NFL stars Brian Kelly and Keyshawn Johnson.
The team wore the Gamebreaker, but Schwartz still had some concerns about his son’s safety. Concussions are especially troubling in young athletes, Schwartz said. “They are hard to diagnose. Kids tend to hide them because they want to play and they don’t want their parents or coaches to pull them out. And kids don’t recover from concussions as fast as adults,” he said.
He got some helmets from Gamebreaker and did an informal test of how well they performed. “We looked at them in the lab and they basically reduced impact on all different parts of the skull by 40 to 60 percent,” Schwartz said. The helmet is also much more forgiving than the hard shell design used in tackle football. “They are really well made and they attenuate force. And they can’t be used as a weapon,” Schwartz said.
Clay Matthews Jr., the defensive coordinator at Oaks Christian High School in Westlake Village, is a fan of the helmets. All the players have one this year, he said. They provide added protection during the “non-contact” offseason in spring and summer. “It’s a no-brainer at this point,” Matthews said. “You put seven to nine people on each side of the ball and they are all moving around at a high rate of speed. Technically it’s non-contact, but people do bump into each other so it’s a smart thing to do.”