HOUSTON – They’re the first line of defense against head injuries in football.
But in a state where football is king, you may be surprised to learn, when it comes to helmets, not all schools are equal.
It’s a lesson O’Neal Mitchell and his family learned the hard way.
“Mama, you need to see me on the field,” Mitchell’s mother, Alice Morris recalled. “I’m good.”
But minutes into the 15 year old’s first game for the Tenaha Tigers, the linebacker was involved in a crushing collision with the opposing quarterback.
“Everybody was just quiet,” explained Morris. “Quiet.”
Her son was down.
Morris ran to the field to be at her son’s side.
“He said, ‘mama, I can’t feel my right side,” said Morris.
Mitchell was permanently paralyzed from the shoulders down.
“One hit,” said Morris, “that’s all it took for O’Neal.”
Mitchell’s mother blames the injuries on a lack of protection from her son’s football helmet according to a lawsuit against its maker.
But she’s not the only one worried about the issue of head injuries and helmet protection.
The KHOU 11 News I-Team sat down with four Houston-area high school football players working out at Next Level Athletics near Katy.
All four admitted similar concerns.
"We’re going up against like 250 pound guys every play,” explained Torrey Thomas, a wide receiver for Katy’s Morton Ranch High School.
“I see it around, with my friends, they get concussions all the time,” added Jacob Griese, a quarterback from Mayde Creek High School.
“I’m not the biggest guy on the field, so obviously it’s something I have to take into precaution,” said Colby Clark, a senior at Houston ISD’s Westside High. “It’s definitely on every player’s mind.”
And with good reason.
Nearly 10 years after Mitchell’s injury, a survey of 82 different high schools in the Houston area found 10 of those schools still using the Riddell VSR-4, the same model helmet Mitchell wore when he was hurt.
That’s something that troubles Professor Stefan Duma of Virginia Tech’s Center of Injury Biomechanics.
The lab tests football helmets and ranks them on their ability to reduce concussions by lessening the acceleration of a player’s head.
“Lower acceleration, lower risk,” explained Duma. “It’s true of head injuries, it’s true for every part of your body.”
Helmets are rated on a five star scale.
Five stars is considered the “best available.”
No stars is considered “not recommended.”
“I can take, for one drop test, a one-star helmet and I’ll get 150 G’s,” said Duma. “Replace it with a five-star helmet, and I can cut that in half to 75 G’s.”
Riddell’s VSR-4 helmet scored one star, or “marginal.”
Citing advancements in helmet technology, Riddell discontinued the VSR-4 helmet three years ago.
In all, the I-Team found 802 helmets in area high schools rated zero, one, or two stars.
It’s something that troubled the area players we spoke with.
“It hurts to hear that,” said Colby Clark.
“Everybody in Texas should have adequate equipment because Texas is the best state to play football,” said Griese.
The I-Team asked Griese if he considered zero, one or two star helmets “adequate.”
He said no.
District records show Humble ISD has 152 one and two star helmets in its inventory (click here to read Humble ISD's statement).
Conroe ISD has 155 of the helmets (click here to read Conroe ISD's statement).
But no district surveyed had more of the low-rated helmets than Fort Bend ISD’s 225.
The I-Team asked Fort Bend ISD’s Director of Athletics Phillip O’Neal what he would say to parents who question the purchase of and use of so many one-star helmets.
“First and foremost, we’re bound by house bill legislation by the UIL, and all our helmets meet that legislation,” explained O’Neal.
That Texas law says no high school football helmet can be more than 15 years old.
“The other piece of that is they have to be NOCSAE certified,” continued O’Neal.
NOCSAE is the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
The organization certifies helmets using a pass-fail rating system and receives funding from sports equipment manufacturers.
NOCSAE has publicly questioned Virginia Tech’s rating system and believes it goes too far.
“I think their scientific approach was reasonable,” said Dave Halstead, technical consulting adviser to NOCSAE. “But they made a leap of faith that I think is premature.”
Dr. Alysia Bedgood, with Memorial Hermann’s Ironman Sports Medicine Institute agrees.
She says while the helmet ratings are useful, it’s important users understand the Virginia Tech system only looks at straight-on hits, or “linear acceleration.”
Bedgood says that doesn’t mirror what actually happens on the football field.
“Somebody's going to catch a shoulder, they're going to, catch a leg and kind of grab that leg and cause some spin,” the doctor explained. “All of those have very variable amounts of both spin to them and straight-on force.”
But both Fort Bend and Humble ISD’s believe there is value to the star ratings.
Both districts pledge to replace all one-star helmets by this fall.
Helmets like the one Mitchell wore.
After six years of heath struggles following his injury he passed away.
“My child lost his life behind Riddell,” said Mitchell’s mother.
She sued Riddell.
The company initially denied her claims, but eventually agreed to a settlement.
Now, she’s hoping her son’s story will alert the parents of other players.
“Do you think most parents figure if the school gave my kid the helmet it must be safe?” The I-Team asked Alice Morris.
“Yeah, I did,” she replied. “Why would they give it to them if, it’s going to hurt him? They wouldn't put their child in them if they figured it would hurt them. So why put mine in it?”
In a statement (click here to read Riddell's full response), Riddell said it doesn’t comment on past lawsuits or their details.
The company also maintains, “the VSR-4 helmet was the most advanced helmet in the marketplace for many years,” but admits “the game has since evolved significantly making room for major advancements in helmet technology.”
As a result, the company says it “has programs in place to encourage those playing football to transition to new helmets that incorporate more advanced technology.”