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Phil Sheridan: One ex-player presses on for safer NFL helmets

The NFL's sudden acquisition of a conscience on the issue of concussions is the football equivalent of baseball's steroid problem.

Philadelphia Eagles' defensive end Reggie White (92) looks on as Andre Waters (20) is tended to by team doctors in 1992. (AP Photo / Wilfredo Lee, file)
Philadelphia Eagles' defensive end Reggie White (92) looks on as Andre Waters (20) is tended to by team doctors in 1992. (AP Photo / Wilfredo Lee, file)Read more

The NFL's sudden acquisition of a conscience on the issue of concussions is the football equivalent of baseball's steroid problem.

Everyone knew years ago that the sport had a serious problem, but it took congressional hearings for the commissioner to take long overdue action.

As Roger Goodell fires off memos and issues edicts - and as star players like Brian Westbrook, DeSean Jackson, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner miss games after shots to the head - thoughts turn to a couple of safeties who were in the Eagles' 1985 training camp.

The most obvious is Andre Waters, a sweet man and fearsome hitter who committed suicide three years ago at age 44. Tests of Waters' brain showed damage from an unknown number of football-related concussions - damage that may have contributed to the depression that claimed his life. Waters' case is one of the reasons Congress was asking Goodell about concussions in the first place.

The other safety was a 10th-round draft pick out of William and Mary who never played a regular-season game for the Eagles. With Waters, Wes Hopkins and Ray Ellis on the roster, Mark Kelso never had a chance to make the team.

But he did go on to a long and distinguished career, appearing in four Super Bowls as a member of the Buffalo Bills. Kelso, who now does radio commentary on Bills games, isn't remembered as well for his 30 career interceptions as he is for wearing the ProCap helmet pad - an extra layer of protection that made him look, in his own words, like the Great Gazoo from the old Flintstones show.

"I had my first concussion in 1988," Kelso said the other day. "I had subsequent concussions, and I was diagnosed with migraine syndrome - the symptoms of a migraine as opposed to the severity of a concussion. I started wearing that extra pad in 1989, and I definitely credit it with extending my career the additional five years that I wore it. After a few games, there was no way I would have played without it."

So a full two decades before Goodell started fiddling, one of the NFL's Romans was taking proactive steps to put out the fire himself. Fifteen years after retiring, Kelso is still working to improve helmet safety.

The ProCap retired with him, a victim of aesthetics and pressure from the established helmet companies. Because of fears the soft pad could stick to another padded helmet, creating a new wave of neck and spine injuries, and because the technology was developed by an outside engineer named Bert Straus, helmet makers Riddell and Schutt voided their warranties if a player modified his helmet with the ProCap. (Westbrook has tried a Schutt model with extra padding, but it's unclear if he'll wear it when or if he returns.)

"I think the most important thing is aesthetics," Kelso said. "Don't think for a minute guys don't stand in front of a mirror before they go out on the field. If they don't think everything looks just right, they're not going to want to wear it."

Straus has designed a helmet called the Gladiator, using the same principle. Kelso is involved in the company, Protective Sports Equipment, and is hoping to see the helmet on NFL players by next season. It is one of four helmets involved in ongoing NFL tests.

"It looks like a standard helmet," Kelso said, "but there's all kinds of state-of-the-art and most technologically protective elements that, I think, will change the helmet industry."

The Gladiator is the only one of the four helmets being tested with the resilient, or softer, exterior. Kelso said the company's test results show that the soft-hard-soft configuration will cut down on concussions. But he is encouraged that Riddell, Schutt and Xenith have all worked to improve safety over the years.

"I'm not here to criticize anybody, particularly the NFL," Kelso said. "They've made a lot of positive steps to address the issue. I understand you have to tread slowly. When you change helmet technology, you run the risk of causing other, potentially more serious injuries with the neck. I understand it has to move fairly slowly."

But it has moved glacially because, like steroids, it is an issue that involves complex and sometimes contradictory issues of safety, performance, integrity and long-term effects that are difficult to factor into short-term decisions.

The league is finally taking the issue seriously. But nothing Goodell or coaches or independent neurologists do will be as effective as players taking note of Kelso's example.

No, they don't have to wear a funny-looking helmet. But they must take responsibility for their own well-being and take whatever action feels right to them, from better equipment to being completely honest with the medical staff.

"Players want to be out on the field, and sometimes they hide getting dinged from the medical or training staff," Kelso said. "If your pupils aren't dilated and your short-term memory is fine, how are they going to tell if you have a headache? Only if you're going to be honest with them, which I think players need to be."

As Kelso proved 20 years ago, it starts with players and the NFL being honest with themselves.