Texans' starting lineup features soft-shell helmet that aims to make the game safer

From afar, you would likely never know the difference this season, but some of the Houston Texans' helmets are not like the others.

The players wearing new soft-shell helmets are some of the guys taking the hardest hits in the game like Brian Cushing, Lamar Miller, Andre Hal and Jadeveon Clowney.

According to Dr. Walter Lowe, medical director of the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute and UTHealth and Texans head team physician, as many as 10 players are trying out the helmet.

"I've picked it up, I've felt it, I've called the company and said 'Hey, can you make me a ski helmet for Aspen this winter?'" Lowe said.

It is that kind of ringing endorsement that has others thinking the new helmet may keep the ringing out of players' heads.

Funded in part by the Houston-based group AngelMD, the Zero 1 helmet is made by the Seattle startup Vicis.

Like a bumper on a car, the Zero 1 is supposed to work like a bumper for a player's head, with a flexible outer shell.

While the fine print of the company's promotional video says that "a correlation between impact reduction and a reduction in concussion risk has not been established," Dr. Lowe says the helmet's technology disrupts an industry that has not turned out a much different helmet in over 10 years.

"They're much lighter than the other helmets and yet, when you look at the performance characteristics because of how they let the head move and how shear is managed by the helmet and not the player's head, they're far more protective," said Lowe of the Zero 1.

"In the testing, [they] just way outperformed some very good helmets. Now, we've got to see that protection translate to the football field," Lowe said.

After meeting industry safety standards from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), the NFL put the Zero 1 through extensive testing, topping the league and NFL Players Association's list of best helmets for its ability to reduce head impact.

Vicis says more than half of the NFL's teams have made the helmets available to players. The decision to use the Zero 1 helmet over others offered by the team is left to the individual players.

While he says no helmet will likely ever prevent a concussion, Dr. Lowe says the more players try out these soft-shell helmets, the more data experts will have.

"We hope the incidence goes way down. We'll see that this year in these helmets," said Lowe. "We really hope the severity of these concussions goes way down and the recovery times go way down."

Vicis says it is working on a helmet for youth players; the current model is made for larger athletes.

At $1,500, the Zero 1 helmet from Vicis is significantly more expensive than other helmets on the market.

Still, Lowe says the helmet is a big step towards making the game safer.

"If my kid's playing football right now...they're in the helmet. If I'm playing right now, I'm in the helmet," said Lowe. "It is disruptive technology that's moved the helmet science significantly past where it's been."

Vicis says many of the NCAA's top 25 football teams have ordered the helmets for players. Teams like the University of Houston say they use similar soft-shell helmets on the field.

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sciencesportsHouston TexansathletessafetyconcussionHouston
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