Amid NFL-wide concussion concerns, 2 Bears embrace new kind of helmet
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Defensive end Mitch Unrein suffered the second concussion of his career when he was hit in the helmet during training camp the week of the Bears’ first preseason game.
When he began working out again, the symptoms lingered. Concerned, his wife, Olympic shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein, went online to research helmet safety.
Around the same time, tight end Ben Braunecker got a similar suggestion — from his computer. He was watching videos online when he noticed one of the suggested items was about a new helmet. YouTube apparently knew Braunecker was a pro football player.
Both now wear the VICIS Zero-1 helmet, which is in its first year in the NFL. It’s designed differently than other helmets. Its flexible outer shell dents like the crumple zone of a car, and polymer columns located between the outer shell and a hard inner shell absorb the shock of a hit.
VICIS’ only helmet model received the highest safety rating among 33 helmets in a study conducted this year by the NFL and NFL Players Association to determine what best handled concussion-causing impact. Schutt and Riddell, perhaps the NFL’s two most popular companies, each had five makes of helmet ranked among the top 15, and Xenith had four.
At a time when the NFL is struggling with concussion concerns, it’s important to remember no helmet can stop them. Still, Braunecker, who seems due for a promotion from the practice squad after tight end Zach Miller’s knee injury, said his new helmet is ‘‘actually fundamentally different than any other helmet I’ve worn.’’
VICIS spent three years developing the helmet, and the first players to wear it — during the developmental phase in summer 2016 — were the semipro Chicago Thunder. Players from 18 NFL teams wore it in the first month of the season, a small number compared with the more traditional brands.
While a fan might not notice the stylistic differences, even a subtle change to how a helmet looks has spooked some players.
‘‘It doesn’t look cool,’’ Unrein said. ‘‘A lot of guys are all about, ‘Look good, feel good, play good.’ But me, I’m like: ‘Shoot, I’m a country kid. I don’t need to be looking good. I just need to go out there and play.’ ’’
As Braunecker showed off his helmet in the Bears’ locker room, fellow tight end Daniel Brown joked about the ‘‘spaceship on his head.’’ It weighs more than his old helmet, Braunecker said, but he got used to it by the end of his first training-camp practice.
‘‘Once your neck and body adjust to it, you’re surprised how well it works,’’ he said. ‘‘The direct head-to-head hits that you take — ones that would have left you dazed with other helmets — you shrug off. It’s, ‘Oh, my God.’
‘‘I bet if more guys tried it, they’d come over to the safe side.’’
Braunecker, a molecular and cellular biology major at Harvard, is smart enough to know that a truly safe side doesn’t exist. The threat of concussions in the NFL goes beyond helmets. The key, he said, is for the league to minimize dangerous collisions and to study the effect of subconcussive hits on the brain.
‘‘I would be lying if I said I’m not worried about it a little bit,’’ Braunecker said. ‘‘But there have been a lot of changes made in the past five to 10 years, rules changes and equipment changes.’’
Two years ago, Unrein wore the top-rated helmet. Today, it’s in the middle of the pack. That’s progress, he said.
‘‘I don’t think there will ever be a perfect helmet because your brain can still move inside your head,’’ Unrein said. ‘‘But I think they’re on the right track.’’
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.