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On NFL Concussions And Mark Kelso's Giant Helmet

I pride myself as being something of a rare breed: I'm a person with a conscience and a sports fan. I don't typically like seeing athletes sustain injuries; where the whole 'troubled conscience' really comes in is when you see a player sustain a head injury, or worse yet, a spinal cord injury. We've learned a lot about head injuries and concussions over the recent years, what with hundreds of former players suing the league over the issue, claiming the NFL didn't do enough to protect players from known risks associated with head injuries and concussions.

All too often now, in football and in other physical sports like hockey, we're hearing about a rapid degradation of the quality of a person's life, often leading to drug and alcohol addiction, erratic behavior, and much more.

Here's where I often think about former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso. Many a night do I lie in my fine bed and think about things, and every so often I think about Kelso and the giant helmet he wore for those early '90s Bills teams. He looked out of proportion and silly with that giant egg on his head. Announcers called him a conehead. In hindsight, he should be called a pioneer.

In a column that ran almost two years ago, ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook wrote about Kelso and former San Francisco tackle Steve Wallace, focusing on their use of an innovative helmet to help them avoid concussions.

Mark Kelso, a safety for the Bills from 1986 to 1993, wore an outer-padded helmet as a starter in four Super Bowls and finished with 30 career NFL interceptions. Many highly drafted, highly paid safeties wish they could say they had a career as good as Kelso did. Steve Wallace, an offensive tackle for the 49ers from 1986 to 1997, wore an outer-padded helmet and made the Pro Bowl. Many highly drafted, highly paid tackles wish they could say they played as well as Wallace did. You can wear an outer-padded helmet and be a very effective football player -- while doing less harm.
Kelso went to outer padding because he'd sustained two severe concussions and been advised to give up football. "The Bills' trainer knew an inventor who had been tinkering with padding," Kelso told me last week. "With padding, I played an additional five seasons, almost 100 more games, and sustained only one concussion, which wasn't a helmet-to-helmet hit -- someone kneed my head. Absolutely the padding made it safer for me and safer for the players I was hitting. You can't use an outer-padded helmet as a weapon. Pound a padded helmet against your own knee; it doesn't hurt. Do that with a standard polycarbonate shell helmet, and you'll howl in pain. If both players were wearing this in a helmet-to-helmet hit, it wouldn't be anywhere near as bad."

This is pretty amazing stuff that becomes only more apt by the day in the wake of near-weekly reminders of this crisis in the news. I have a sneaking suspicion that Kelso's and Wallace's experience with concussions and improved helmets is being studied by both sides of the ongoing litigation.

Obviously, Kelso knew that the concussions could end his career, and he wanted to do something about it. Here we are, 20 years later, without any kind of substantial improvement to the helmet.

But in at least one case, the players are their own worst enemies. The technology exists to place a sensor in the helmet to measure the force of impact of any given hit, and perhaps act accordingly upon that information. Which may lead to precautionary, involuntary benching during a game. The players want none of that.

I don't have the technical expertise to know why the whole league doesn't follow the Kelso-Wallace model, and create a softer external area on the outside of the helmet that can absorb impact. You often hear of players returning from concussions with improved helmets.

Personally, I'm happy Kelso is still with the Bills as John Murphy's radio color man. I think he does a professorial job illuminating defensive schemes. And I love laying in bed at night and dreaming of his ridiculous helmet, and hoping there's a way for football to be played without regularly resulting in potentially catastrophic injury.