Mark Hatcher, who played four years of football at UW-Stout, is well aware of the risks associated with competing in the sport.
“Playing football, there are injuries almost every day,” he said. “Everyone plays hurt, everyone battles through rehab and injuries throughout their careers.
“Seeing this in myself, and also my teammates, and being an avid fan of the sport itself led me to pursue this project.”
That “project” is the “Aries,” a football helmet named for the Greek god of war. Hatcher, who graduated on Dec. 16 with a degree in industrial design, developed the concept to help prevent traumatic brain injuries.
The helmet’s design has three layers intended to reduce shock; the first is made up of plates that move independently. A second is a soft, plastic layer “that is three-dimensional structured to take shock like a bumper car does,” Hatcher said. The third layer employs a multidirectional impact protection system that keeps the skull from rotating.
“Other features of the helmet that are different from current options are a no-fog visor, easily removable facemask in case of head or neck injuries and overall superior airflow versus other helmets to make it comfortable to wear,” he said. “There are also many more options for team branding and styling with this helmet.”
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Hatcher’s invention comes at a time of heightened awareness in football about head injuries.
In a guest column last week for the Kansas City Star, Nicki Langston wrote about her son, Zack Langston, who played outside linebacker from 2007-10 for Pittsburg State (Kan.) University.
“It wasn’t until a few years after college when we started to notice some changes in Zack,” she wrote. “He had anger issues that he never had before and, although he hid it well, he also struggled with depression.”
Zack, who had a girlfriend and young son, took his own life at the age of 26. Several months later, the family had his brain tested for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The result was positive.
CTE is “a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma,” according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Boston University’s CTE Center earlier this year linked CTE to all but one of 111 former NFL players’ brains examined posthumously. It also was found in 48 of 53 deceased players who played in college.
“We can’t go back and change anything for Zack,” Nicki wrote. “All we can do is honor our son by sharing his story with others.
“More must be done to protect students and ensure their health and safety are not the price to be paid for playing college football.”
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Hatcher has returned to Colorado. He’s a graduate of Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo., who chose UW-Stout because of “the community atmosphere” and the opportunity to play football while pursuing a degree in industrial design.
As far as the Aries helmet, which Hatcher displayed recently at the Senior Show in Menomonie, there were hurdles to negotiate early on.
“Being able to put myself in the shoes of every user involved with the helmet was a challenge for me,” he said. “I already had the point of view of a player, but learning about how athletic trainers, doctors and equipment managers interact with the product was difficult.”
Like many recent graduates, Hatcher currently is hunting for a new job. He also, however, is moving forward with his senior project.
“Further development in terms of manufacturing and particular research on materials will be the next step,” he said. “Also, developing the story of the product more and more to figuratively sell it to the market.”
Whether or not Hatcher’s invention ultimately will play a role in the battle against concussion or CTE cases remains to be seen. His passion for the product and its potential impact, however, already is evident.
“NFL players are dying because of it,” Hatcher said of CTE in a UW-Stout news release. “The future of football is at risk.
“Without football, I wouldn’t be where I am. This is really about knowing everything football taught me and seeing it could be done.”
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