RACINE — With seemingly each passing year, the national discussion about concussions in football — and concerns about the future of the game — grows more intense.
But as the Friday Night Lights turn on for another season, a Horlick High School assistant coach is hoping to stem the tide with new helmets for local players. Kyle Oppenheimer founded Helmets to Heal, a group that aims to put state-of-the-art helmets on Racine football players to help lower the risk of concussions.
The organization outfitted 11 players at Horlick with the helmets and another seven at Park before the season kicked off last week. Eventually, the organization hopes to raise enough money from Racine-area businesses and residents to provide helmets to more high school players and — also of importance to the group — pre-high school football players.
All involved acknowledge no helmet will take concussions out of the game, but say it’s progress toward making the game safer.
Oppenheimer’s vision goes something like this: Funding comes in, Racine youth and high school programs have the best possible helmets, the number of concussions go down and parents allow their kids to come back out for football.
“And the most important thing is these kids can go onto college and they’re not losing their memory already or going into major depression,” Oppenheimer said, noting the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known by the acronym CTE.
The equipment Helmets to Heal brought in is made by Detroit-based Xenith. The helmet is designed to absorb a hard hit by redistributing the impact around the helmet and minimizing sudden movement of the head.
The helmets also have more ventilation holes and an electronic sensor that sends a signal to coaches on the sideline if a player takes a big blow and should be checked out.
“The technology is really coming together and it’s very, very exciting,” Oppenheimer said.
“There’s no helmet that’s going to completely prevent concussions,” Horlick head coach Brian Fletcher added. “But I think with the research and the education with coaches nowadays, I really believe the game is safer now than it’s probably ever been.”
The group will track players using the helmets to see how the equipment works. So far, players wearing the helmets say they have noticed a difference.
Xavier Piaz, a senior middle linebacker at Horlick, said the equipment is more comfortable and the impact from hard hits is less.
“Other times I still had a lingering headache, but I don’t have anything now,” he said.
In addition to safety, Helmets to Heal would be a boost to the budgets of local football programs. Helmets are a big expense, officials say — the Xenith helmets cost about $270 each after a discount, Oppenheimer said. Outfitting an entire football program runs in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s really helped our program and our budget,” Fletcher said.
Helmets to Heal is being formed as a nonprofit organization and money has already started to flow in, though the group will soon start making a strong push. Anyone interested in more information or to donate can go to helmetstoheal.com, a website that was supposed to go online on Sunday.
Oppenheimer, a former Horlick player who graduated in 1999, emphasized he’s not trying to promote any specific business.
“Ultimately, this is about putting a smiling face on the field,” he said, “and a smiling face off the field.”