NFL linemen don't usually end up on cereal boxes. That honor is reserved for handsome quarterbacks, not the guys that do the dirty work in the trenches.
But officials at DuPont Co. and Riddell Inc. think linemen deserve some attention anyway. That's why Riddell, the Chicago firm that leads the U.S. football helmet market, is using DuPont's Abcite thermoplastic powder coating to improve the quality of the face masks used on its helmets.
Riddell introduced its Thick-Coat Z-Bar face mask late last year and will use it on all linemen's helmets in the 1998 football season. The Z-Bar mask, which features an Abcite coating, is designed for linemen and other players in contact-heavy positions where repeated impact takes a toll on face masks.
The new mask is more abrasion-resistant than other face masks on the market, including those covered with PVC powder coatings and plastisols, according to Nelson Kraemer, Riddell's director of quality assurance.
Riddell's Z-Bar face masks are produced by a fluidized bed process in which metal frames are preheated, primed and dipped into Abcite before being placed in a convection oven to melt the powder. The mask is expected to last at least two years in high school football and one year at the professional level.
The face mask has been used in practice conditions and training camps by the NFL's Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets and major college programs at the University of Nebraska and Florida State University.
Riddell, which provides a helmet reconditioning service, was seeing more wear and tear on face masks, prompting the firm to seek out stronger materials, Kraemer said.
``In some professional uses, face masks weren't even lasting an entire season because of the kind of hitting, the length of the season and the amount of practicing that they do,'' he said.
DuPont's Abcite is essentially a powdered version of the company's Surlyn-brand ionomer resin, a leading material for golf ball covers. The material maintains excellent impact resistance over a wide temperature range, does not corrode and is unaffected by rain or snow, company officials said.
Abcite was introduced in the United States in 1996 and has found applications in architectural lighting, fencing and other outdoor uses, said Chip Fogg, spokesman for Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont.
Abcite's increased durability would be especially valuable to high school football teams, because national regulations require any face mask with exposed metal —where the plastic coating has been stripped off — to be removed from the playing field out of concerns for player safety.
The number of face masks the average high school team needs to replace each season can be as high as 20 percent, according to John Cook Sr., owner of the Athletic House, a Knoxville, Tenn., sports equipment retailer.
Most of those face masks need to be replaced because of exposed metal, Cook said in a recent telephone interview.
``Helmets and face masks are lasting longer because they're made from better material than they used to be,'' Cook said. ``But players are getting bigger and stronger all the time and they're going to tear them up quicker.''
High schools typically buy extra face masks in case some are damaged during the season or if the number of players at individual positions changes, causing new styles of face masks to be used. A team buying 50 helmets might buy a dozen extra face masks, according to Jack Schlicht, president of Milwaukee Sporting Goods, a Milwaukee firm that sells to 200 high schools and a dozen colleges.
Abcite could be arriving at the right time, since a study released by the National Sporting Goods Association shows participation in tackle football increased by 7.9 percent between 1995 and 1996. The sport is played by 9 million players ages 7 and older, according to the Chicago-based NSGA.
Sporting goods manufacturers are also on the lookout for new materials such as Abcite, NSGA spokesman Larry Weindruch said by telephone.
``There aren't a lot of big quantum leaps in sports technology, so manufacturers are looking for stronger, more durable material that's lightweight and safe so they can see increased savings in their manufacturing costs,'' he said.
Although athletic directors would notice improvements offered by new materials, Weindruch said players wouldn't notice much of a change.
``They just want something that fits right and works so they can go out there and hit someone,'' he said.