When the Lakewood Ranch High football teams take the field next season, they will do so equipped with protection unique to area programs.
The school is buying Riddell’s SpeedFlex helmets, equipped with InSite Training Tool technology, to equip all Mustangs from the varsity to the freshmen team. To the naked eye, the helmets don’t seem to carry anything special, but they do.
The ITT is a system of sensors under the padding of the helmet. Each helmet is connected to a monitoring device, which looks like a cellphone. When a player receives a high-impact hit to the helmet, the monitor will sound an alert.
The idea was brought to Lakewood Ranch by new head coach Christopher Culton.
“When I first got here, I audited what we had,” Culton said. “There were some things (equipment) we were going to have to get anyway. I met with some parents to see what their major concern was, and they were really concerned with concussions.
“I presented it to Shawn Trent (Lakewood Ranch’s athletic director). We did a lot of research and came up with a plan. At our size, there’s nobody in the county who is doing what we are doing, according to Riddell. We’re more outfitted with this technology than some NFL teams.”
Culton said the changes won’t stop with helmets. The Mustangs are implementing a rugby-style tackling system that focuses on grabbing and rolling instead of hitting. It’s more effective tackling, Culton said, but it requires more effort.
The football program’s budget paid for 120 helmets at approximately $500 each. (Regular helmets range from about $250 to $350 each.) The hope is to raise enough money to pay for 30 helmets each season, ensuring the program remains on the cutting edge of Riddell’s technology.
ITT stores its alerts and builds profiles for individual players. Since every player reacts differently to hits, the tool helps find patterns in player behavior. If an offensive lineman consistently gets alerts when run-blocking to the left, for example, coaches can recognize this and work with the player to change his technique. If players receive a high number of alerts during a specific practice drill, the staff can change the drill to lessen the impact.
Mustangs athletic trainer Sydney Suppa said the new technology will eliminate the possibility of head injuries going undiagnosed, thus exacerbating the potential damage, while also giving feedback to help the coaches develop strategies to lesson the possibility of a concussion.
“I’ll have a monitor, and coach Culton will have a monitor,” Suppa said. “It’ll be about the size of a cellphone. If a kid takes a hit that’s above a specific threshold, it will alert me with who it is, their number and where the hit was. With that, we can say, ‘Oh, you need to pull out Billy so we can check him for a concussion.’ It’s great for me because, obviously, there’s 120 guys out here. I’m not going to be able to see everything. This is like a second pair of eyes.”
Players are excited about the new technology. John Riley, a center who will be a senior in the fall, is one of three Mustangs players who wore the helmets during spring practices. Riley said he’s never suffered a serious head injury, but the possibility has been in the back of his mind.
With the new helmets, he’s feeling safer, he said, and his mom, Victoria Riley, is feeling more relaxed. He also said the helmets are more comfortable than Lakewood Ranch’s previous helmets, and that the flexible chin strap, especially, is a nice feature.
“This is outstanding,” said Joey Theriot, father of varsity fullback Drake Theriot. “Coach (Culton) made it clear that this is about the safety of our boys. He’s doing everything he can to make the game safe in the future and it’s a way of utilizing new technology.”
Culton said he hasn’t talked to the parents of any middle school players about the helmets yet, but he hopes the safety Lakewood Ranch provides is recognized.
The Mustangs lost their spring game 41-0 to host Booker High on May 11. Culton knows he has work to do with the on-field product, but the most important change he can make is already underway.
“If a mom is going to send a kid here to play football, he’s going to be protected,” Culton said.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.