NFL star Patrick Mahomes doesn't have many holes in his game. But on Jan. 13, he had one in his helmet.
Mahomes — quarterback for the Super Bowl defending champion Kansas City Chiefs — was hit in a playoff game vs. the Miami Dolphins. The impact caused the plastic shell to shatter near the top of his helmet. The temperature in Kansas City was 4 degrees below zero at the time.
It was a bizarre moment and not a great look for the NFL, which has emphasized player safety in recent years after seeing the medical toll of concussions on former players. It also wasn't a good look for game officials to let Mahomes continue with one more play with the damaged helmet.
The type of helmet worn by Mahomes is made by Certor Sports LLC. The Plainfield, Ind.-based company soon issued a statement defending its product.
"Extreme conditions like those experienced in Saturday evening's NFL playoff game are bound to test the limits of even the highest performing products," it said. "While outer shell damage is not ideal, the Zero 2 helmet did its job of protecting Patrick Mahomes during a head-to-head impact in unprecedented cold temperatures."
Company officials added the helmet's design approach is similar to the crumple zone of modern cars, absorbing and dispersing impact forces at the point of contact. This technology has earned it top ratings from NFL Performance Testing rankings and from Virginia Tech, which rates helmet safety. That style of helmet has been adopted by several athletes at all levels of football, from the NFL to youth leagues.
In a Jan. 17 Associated Press story, Barry Miller, Virginia Tech lab director, said "it's unusual for a football helmet to crack a shell, but we've had occurrences here in the lab and we generally test at ambient temperature. … If you asked a football equipment room manager, you may find a different answer, as they see tons of helmets with plenty of impacts."
The day after the game, Mahomes was focused on getting the damaged helmet back.
"It's something that's cool [and that] I'll be able to keep for a long time," he said. "Like [Certor] said, it did its job. I was perfectly fine after."
Plastic helmets were first used in the NFL in 1939 — when leather helmets dominated — and were made official by the league in 1949. Those first helmets were made by Riddell Co., which remains a leading helmet manufacturer today.
Most modern helmets are made with a polycarbonate outer shell, with expanded polystyrene (EPS) and thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) used as protective padding inside the helmet.
Where do the helmet makers and the NFL go from here? The league seems to enjoy the rugged image of playing the occasional playoff game in extremely low temperatures, even though 15 fans were hospitalized after the Chiefs-Dolphins game with cold-related conditions and the fire department received dozens of calls relating to hypothermia and frostbite.
So if that's the case, Certor Sports and other helmet makers likely will need to improve the cold resistance of their products and do testing in more severe and prolonged conditions. Doing so will take time and money, but it's a small price to pay for player safety.