A flexible polyurethane-based product aimed at reducing football-related head and brain injuries that briefly gained some notoriety before being discarded in the 1990s is likely to be back in the limelight in the next few months.
Called ProCap and invented by industrial designer Bert Straus, its soft outer shell weighs less than a pound, affixes onto a helmet and serves as a cushion. A soft-hard-soft layering system is created, rather than the standard hard-soft helmet system presently used. ``They're like bumpers with a soft, hard surface,'' Straus said.
ProCap was used, praised and panned by National Football League officials in a five-year span during the 1990s. Ultimately, teams stopped using it.
But that could change. The NFL is taking a look at its growing concussion problem and Straus expects that by the end of February or early March, when the league concussion committee meets, ProCap - complete with new tests and data - will be reviewed again.
ProCap made its NFL debut in the early '90s when Buffalo Bill defensive back Mark Kelso, after suffering a concussion, began wearing the flexible PU helmet shield. He continued using it, ``and he said he got five more years of playing time because of it,'' said Straus, founder of AE Straus Designs, an industrial design firm in Baltimore.
``I came up with ProCap in the late 1980s because of a bit of insanity,'' Straus quipped. ``We designed something for a perceived need - and no one asked me to do. I had been watching a football game, and I saw two guys hit head on. I thought that a pillow in the helmet would have prevented a serious injury. Then I came up with this. It greatly reduces injury.''
Initially, he went to the football community - from little gridders up to the pros - with his invention. Then some NFL teams - the Buffalo Bills in particular - started using it for players who had suffered concussions and worked with AE Straus Designs to redesign and reshape it, he said.
``That's when safety Mark Kelso started using it. And it continued to be used successfully for the next several years until the NFL changed its opinion and decided not to use it because it said ProCap might cause other types of problems.''
Straus disagreed, insisting that the league had produced no evidence of other types of injuries. He furnished independent test results that supported his invention. Nonetheless, the NFL hierarchy warned team trainers in 1996 that the PU cap could cause neck and other injuries. Teams began shying away from it and ProCap virtually vanished from the NFL scene shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, Edinboro, Pa.-based Protective Sports Equipment Inc., the manufacturer of ProCap, tested the product at the college and high school levels. The test results were positive, Straus said, ``and concerns of the opponents of the technology were answered, and we continued on with the development of ProCap.''
Now, with serious head injuries continuing to crop up, the issue is back in the NFL's hands. But even if ProCap gets a favorable ruling, Straus knows it is unlikely professional football teams will run out to stock up on the product.
``Quarterbacks themselves don't even like the looks of ProCaps,'' said Straus, who's already working on offshoot products.
``I see ProCap as the precursor of a whole new helmet system incorporating the helmet with ProCap technology. If all players at all levels wore them there would be a lot less concussions and a lot less impact injuries,'' he said.