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This article was published 28/10/2017 (885 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Imagine a scenario where Winnipeg high school football players were using the same cutting-edge technology to help detect and prevent concussions as the top-ranked college teams in the United States.
Well, it could happen soon, in some form — largely because the same company that developed and built the technology is based in the West Fort Garry industrial area.
Vista Medical is behind a fabric sensor system called BodiTrak that can be installed in football helmets that — in real time — can measure the magnitude and location of head impact as well as G-force and temperature. Coaches and trainers are able to monitor the data within 15 seconds of impact.
Just as important, says BodiTrak CEO Andrew Frank, the data can be collected — then sorted by team, position and individual players — and compiled over the course of a season, or longer.
The sensors are placed between the shell of the helmet and the padding inside. When an impact is detected, the sensors send a snapshot of the data to a wireless base station that transmits the data to an internet cloud.
"They will tell you how hard and how fast your head turned, which both can be bad things," says Frank. "They can’t tell you on the helmet where you got hit. What we’re trying to do is not just look at the instance of this event but how often you’ve been hit here over the last five games. Because CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is a cumulative injury."
BodiTrak has partnered with Head Health Network, based in Baton Rouge, La., and Marucci Sports to market and distribute the sensor system in North America. Marucci Sports is the largest supplier of baseball equipment in the U.S.; the company’s bats are used by a third of all Major League players.
Vista Medical began research and development on the sensor system three years ago. Today, several major U.S. college programs — including No. 1-ranked Alabama, No. 2-ranked Penn State and No. 4-ranked Texas Christian University — use the BodiTrak system.
The cost for colleges to lease the system can range from $1,500 to $10,000 per year, depending on the number of helmets used. That amount includes maintenance.
HHN president Curtis Cruise says coaches, trainers and medical staff at college programs primarily use the data in two ways. In the short term, staff can monitor individual games and practices to identify impacts that exceed G-force thresholds established by the teams (usually 80 or higher).
Over the long term, they can identify trends, such as what plays cause more impact, and to whom. Or single out players who might be taking higher-impact hits due to faulty tackling technique.
For example, Cruise notes one instance where Louisiana State University data revealed one play the team ran in practice resulted in high-impact contact for two particular players. Both were leading with helmets. Coaches determined the technique both players used at the point of contact was not safe and "wildly ineffective," Cruise says.
"In that instance, we were able to change and improve technique so it would not be happening in practice," he adds.
Frank says it’s impossible to prevent concussions in football unless players used a giant "gel-filled ball" as a helmet.
"So the real benefit... has been the change in behaviour," he says. "So we can assess the way a player is playing and say, ‘Why is he getting a lot of hits?’ Can we take a look at the film and see what his technique is? This gives the coach the (ability) to do that.
"You have a game, someone’s been hit, it’s sent to a base station at the sideline, which sends it to the cloud.
"And the cloud has all the player’s hit history. Today, yesterday, two months ago, last year; you can compare what the pattern looks like."
So far, Frank says, professional leagues have not shown much interest in the technology, although all NFL teams employ large training and medical staffs.
"The players don’t want to know (when) they’re injured because they don’t want to get taken off the field," he says. "And the owners don’t want to know (about injuries) because they don’t want the liability."
So the company is focusing on college and high school programs — the latter being the largest potential market.
According to Cruise, some high school players can face greater risk for concussions — especially the better athletes — because they often play both offence and defence. They are more likely to be involved in impact situations.
There can also be a vast discrepancy in size and talent level between teams at the high school level.
"The expectation would be that high school would be safer across the board," he says. "And while that’s true in some regards — it’s much safer for most players — the really good players... it’s worse for them. They’re the stars. They are the ones that never leave the field."
Also, there are fewer eyes on the field and fewer trainers and medical staff present at high school games and practices.
Earlier this month, a high school team in Moncton, N.B. was forced to forfeit a game after after nine players suffered blows to the head, and all were taken to hospital as a precaution. Four of them showed serious symptoms of concussions, such as nausea and vomiting.
Representatives of Medical Vista, which has been operating in Winnipeg for 25 years, have been encouraging Head Health Network to recruit city high schools to purchase the sensor technology for about $100 a helmet per year, which represents a significant hometown discount.
And the interest is there, but not necessarily the financial wherewithal.
"It’s the best product I’ve seen on the market," says Rick Henkewich, commissioner of the Winnipeg High School Football League. "For our guys to have that type of technology would be amazing. I think they would flip out. But the downside is the $100 a pop. We don’t have that $3,000 to $4,000 a team.
"If I’m going to get it, I’ve got to get it for everybody."
Henkewich is planning to propose to HHN that the WHSFL could serve as a testing market in Canada with an offer to lease five sensor helmets per team and receive another five free.
"If I’ve got 10 per team, that’s a pretty good ratio," he says, noting that the league could also attempt to find sponsors to cover costs. "What companies wouldn’t want to be involved in the safety of a football player?"
At least one Winnipeg high school program plans to lease the helmet technology regardless.
The Dakota Lancers are in the process of raising money to cover the cost for next season, which could be up to $3,000.
The team is seeking local sponsors and is exploring fundraising ideas.
"We like the technology... so we think it’s a valuable piece we can integrate into our program," says Lancers head coach Ray Jarvis. "To have it right in your own backyard is something that needs to be promoted and, hopefully, more teams can get involved with."
For now, Jarvis sees the sensors potentially as more of a preventative tool for tackling technique.
"If we’ve constantly got the frontal lobe, or the crown of the helmet, I know we need to get our heads up when we’re tackling," he says. "For me, it’s a teachable moment."
The sensors could also detect impacts that happen away from the play or don’t seem serious to the naked eye, he says.
"That’s probably the ones that happen the most, the ones you don’t see," he notes. "The technology does give you the G-force impact in terms of what that hit looked like in real time. So that’s just another precautionary step.
"It can pop up on the screen and you can say, ‘Oh, that kid took a big hit. I better go down and talk to him.’ That type of component can be useful during game. And, more importantly, during practice. Because you’re potentially getting more contact during the course of the week than you are during the game."
It’s worth noting that Vista Medical has been developing and producing sensor-based products for more than two decades, which run the gamut from cloth that helps prevent bedsores in hospitals to mats that can improve golf swings from the ground up.
"Anywhere you want to measure pressure between the body and the surface," Frank says, noting that the golf mats are now in use at golf courses owned by U.S. President Donald Trump. Canadian golfer Mike Weir, a former Masters champion, bought one last month.
Frank says it might be considered surprising that a firm operating out of a non-nondescript office building in Fort Garry is producing a product being used in football games watched by millions of North Americans each weekend. But it shouldn’t.
"There’s leading cutting-edge technology that’s developed here that actually gets sold around the world," he says. "The technology for the circuit board, to the software on the boards, to the product in the field. It was all developed and manufactured in Winnipeg."
Which is why someone like BodiTrak senior software/hardware development manager Adam Kapilik has a personal interest in seeing local players benefit from a product he helped create. Kapilik is a former city football champion with the 1997 River East Kodiaks and his brother, Corey, founded the Miles Macdonell Collegiate program in 2003.
To Kapilik, the thought of a Winnipeg kid wearing the same sensor technology as Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, a Heisman Trophy favourite, would bring the evolution of the product full-circle.
"That," he says, "would be super-cool."
Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.