Despite the high cost of SpeedFlex helmets, football programs in the Seminole Athletic Conference are making a conscious effort to advance the safety of their players.

Due to an elevated awareness of sports-related concussions over the past few years, high schools across the country are finding it harder to field football teams. Research outlining the connection between CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and blows to the head gives parents reason to worry — and some kids from Seminole Athletic Conference schools opting for limited or non-contact sports. A recent survey by the National Federation of High School Associations shows the number of 11-player football participants is down 6.5 percent from its peak in 2009-10. Further, the results found that outdoor track, which passed football as the most participated sport in the 2016-2017 survey, is still on top. The local impact is real. “More students are not taking the field,” says Lyman High School Principal Mike Rice. “Over the years, this has become a crisis in Seminole County. Schools are struggling to field a team. Technology can go far, however, addressing the needs.” Indeed, better equipment coupled with preventative tackling techniques and coaches certified in concussion protocol are working in tandem to prevent concussions, and severe neck and head injuries. Today, safety is the highest of priorities, especially in the Seminole Athletic Conference.

Technological advancements

Using advancements in technology, Riddell now manufactures the SpeedFlex helmet, which is designed to prevent concussions and head injuries. Lyman’s Varsity team is now outfitted with the SpeedFlex helmets thanks to a fundraising effort by Longwood Mayor Matt Morgan. Price does become a factor for some area schools; SpeedFlex helmets run $350 apiece. While uber-protective helmet use is still in its infancy, coaches and players are supporters of the new head gear. Lyman’s Head Football Coach Dennis Thomas told FanVuu last month his players appreciate the new helmets. “The kids feel the difference,” he says. “There is more cushion to the helmet, which gives them more confidence.” Senior offensive lineman Dyran Thomas, one of the biggest high schoolers in the county (6-foot-7, 386 pounds) is one of them. “I like them,” he says. “They are comfortable.” “Almost all of our players are outfitted with the SpeedFlex helmets,” says Oviedo High School Running Backs Coach Andrew Dennis. “This is what we spend most of our money on. It’s all about keeping the kids safe. It is a phenomenal helmet. The kids like them and think they look cool.” Oviedo’s senior star running back Keonte Coffie is wearing the helmet for the second consecutive year. “I like the helmets,” he says. “They are more comfortable and have more padding. But I don’t take any chances.”

Heightened awareness

Like Coffie, many of today’s high school players understand the implications of a concussion. “The equipment has gotten better, but our kids are more aware of what a concussion feels like and looks like,” says Coach Dennis. The players are also being taught how to play without putting themselves or others in harm’s way “In any sport, you are teaching the game,” says Coach Thomas. “Technique helps with reducing injuries.” “We have always taught proper technique in tackling to avoid head injuries with eyes up and head to the side of the runner being tackled,” adds Lake Brantley Head Coach David Delfiacco. Coach Delfiacco says while Lake Brantley High’s JV and freshman squads are outfitted with SpeedFlex helmets, the school went another direction for its upper classmen. This fall, varsity takes the field wearing VICIS ZERO 1 helmets, another highly ranked head gear option engineered to absorb impacts.

Safety is the number one concern

“We tested the VICIS helmet in the spring with six players and had great results,” says Coach Delfiacco. “Right now, it is the number one helmet on the market in technology. We also use guardian caps over the helmet in practice for more protection. The safety of our players is our number one concern.” Lake Mary High School football players are almost fully outfitted with SpeedFlex helmets as well. Head Coach Scott Perry says 80 percent of his players now don the protective helmets. Hagerty High is employing a mix of SpeedFlex and smart helmets with sensors that measure the intensity of a blow to the head in real time. Equipment and technique aside, protocols initiated by the state of Florida are just as important in keeping players safe. In 2015, Florida became the first state to require all athletes take an online course on concussions as a prerequisite for playing. Coaches have been required to be certified in concussion protocol for almost ten years. “All of our coaches and AD’s are certified every year in concussion protocol, heat-related illness and sudden cardiac arrest,” notes Coach Delfiacco.