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In addition to limiting the amount of full-contact practices, Penn football is using new shells that attach to the outside of helmets to limit head injuries.

Credit: Chase Sutton

It’s the one thing no one in football wants to see happen. 

No, not another Patriots Super Bowl victory — a head injury.

Penn football is taking steps to make sure the team sees fewer of them. And now, the team’s latest move in what has been a years-long campaign to protect players’ heads has been to add a new layer to the outside of players’ helmets during full-contact practices. 

The additional shells, produced by a company called Defend Your Head, add an extra pound of protective material to helmets, in theory absorbing more force during collisions and decelerating helmets more effectively to dampen the effects of an impact on the player, according to football trainer Emily Dorman. In addition to the football team wearing them, Penn sprint football, the team's lightweight counterpart, will also don the extra layer for the 2018 campaign. 

“It’s an easy, smart step that we can take [to reduce head injuries],” Dorman said of the inserts. “We’re always evaluating what’s out there.”

The players wore them all offseason during full-contact practices, and they'll continue on with them even — from last Sunday on — as they ditch tackling in practice altogether.

This season marks the third year of the Ivy League’s initiative to ban full-contact practices after the end of preseason training. The move was widely hailed across the nation as an innovative move by the Ancient Eight, providing fresh ideas to a game in need of change. 

Banning full-contact practices was among the multiple rule changes the Ivy League has made in recent years. Additionally, the conference pioneered moving kick-offs up to the 40-yard line to reduce the number of kick returns, one of the most dangerous plays in the game. 

“I think the league is doing a great job,” Dorman said of its efforts to curb head injuries. “We helped create football, the Ivy League did. I think we have such a responsibility to help continue to foster it and grow and help football evolve to become as safe as possible. Injuries will still happen, but we need to evolve it, and the Ivy League feels a great responsibility for that.” 

Credit: Chase Sutton

A Penn football trainer displays the new helmet shells used at all full-contact practices.

But as this year’s acquisition of the shells show, concussions and brain injuries have not been eliminated along with contact practices. Without providing numbers, Dorman noted that the Quakers still incur head injuries at a roughly similar rate to the rest of the sport. During the 2017 NFL season, each team saw nearly nine concussions on average for the year — likely more, when factoring in undiagnosed injuries, a persistent problem in football. 

Coach Ray Priore described his approach for reducing head injuries on the team as a multi-pronged effort. 

“There’s a lot of things — both in technique, how we drill [tackles], how we practice, how we protect the players — all great measures which will continually add to the safety of the student-athlete.”

Despite noting that she still sees instances of unreported head injuries, Dorman expressed confidence that players were coming to better understand the need to report potential injuries and play it safe whenever in doubt. 

“Our [concussion] education is working. Athletes are becoming more aware and feeling more confident speaking up and saying when something is wrong,” Dorman said. “We’re seeing more instances of teammates sticking up for each other.” 

In addition to improving treatment, though, Priore argued that the team is always working on increasing prevention as well. 

“The way you minimize the concussions is by minimizing the opportunities,” Priore said. “It’s how you practice. We spend more time on video and walkthroughs today than we’ve done in the past … It used to be on the field for three hours. Now we’re on the field for an hour and 50 minutes, but we’re in the meeting rooms maybe for another hour and 20 minutes.”

With Bucknell lying in wait, the time for preseason injury prevention is over. Over the next 10 weeks, the team will try to avoid as many head injuries as possible. In the event they do occur, though, Priore, Dorman, and all the athletic training staff are working to prevent one moment from having lifetime effects.