Keeping helmets on college players' heads is not a snap

Players losing their headgear.

In recent seasons, helmets are increasingly being separated from craniums. It's not just the ball rolling on the ground after collisions between tackler and runner or receiver.

What the helmet is going on?

The consensus is, the headgear design is not to blame, though local equipment managers suggest that one popular model might be more prone to flying off if faultily secured.

More likely, the experts say, players are wearing ill-fitted helmets or are improperly buckling them.

On the college and pro level, the traditional two-point helmets -- those with a pair of chinstraps -- have given way to the standard four-point type and the occasional six-pointer. Applied correctly, they should hold the helmet in place better than ever.

But some players, with their helmets, prefer the fashion equivalent of droopy pants or unbuttoned shirts. "What I would deem as the cool factor," said D.J. MacLean, director of sports marketing for helmet supplier Schutt Sports.

"When a few of your chinstraps are flapping in the breeze, they are not doing their job of keeping the helmet buckled to your head."

At Riddell, the most widely known helmet provider, Thad Ide has observed much the same.

"I see a lot of players with one or more [chinstraps] dangling," said Ide, the firm's vice president of research and development.

As for the helmets, "they should be comfortable and snug," he said. "When you see a player go to the sidelines, grab the facemask and pull off the helmet like it's a baseball cap, it's too loose."

Vulnerability to concussion or neck injury rises when the head is exposed. In college, officials whistle the play dead if the ball carrier loses his noggin protection.

The SEC has discussed more rules to address the issue but none has been implemented, according to spokesman Charles Bloom.

In the ACC, coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads says his group's to-do checklist before each play includes seeing that all chinstraps are attached, in accordance with the NCAA's required-equipment rule. The NCAA stipulates that ignoring a warning to buckle up could result in a forced timeout for the offending team.

At Georgia Tech, equipment manager Tom Conner says he often is asked by coaches why players keep parting ways with their helmets on big hits.

He orders helmets with deep coating and deep teeth on the straps to prevent sliding. He reminds guys to snap all buckles. Before games, he has had to readjust straps that have been loosened by the wearer.

"One player, I literally could have slipped my hand through his chinstrap," Conner said.

"We've experienced a lot where the kids are just not buckling them up tight enough. When they watch a Sunday afternoon game, they see some guys have three snaps of the four-snap helmet unbuckled."

Conner has noticed a tendency among players to slacken the attachments on game days after wearing helmets tightly during the practice week.

"You just can't have it that way," Conner said. "You risk injury by not having that helmet on right."

Tech offers players a sizable helmet menu, with eight models from three manufacturers. A popular choice is Riddell's Revolution Speed, which has a wider base. If not fitted and fastened properly, it has a greater tendency to come off, Conner observed.

Georgia State limits its selection to two models of Schutt, partly because equipment manager Jay Bailey believes the Revolution is looser-fiiting, with the jaw pads lower than in most others.

"They're the ones I've seen come off the most," said Bailey, whose job interview with Bill Curry began with a question on the headless helmets that the coach noticed as an ESPN game analyst. "That's one of the reasons I don't use it."

Riddell's Ide maintains that unattached chinstraps increase the odds of any helmet popping off, not just the Revolution.

"The discussion shouldn't be about how badly you can fit a helmet and get away with it," he said.

Schutt's MacLean lauds college equipment managers for efforts in matching players' heads with correctly sized helmets.

Out of their control, he said, is "what a player does to his helmet after he gets back to his locker. They start messing with it."

Echoed Bailey, "It's daily maintenance [for him] with some of these kids."

Complicating matters is what's between the head and the helmet.

"Hairstyles and do-rags and hair products" factor in to the fit and stability of a helmet, MacLean said.

Long dreadlocks and other styles have become all the rage with players. As the hair grows out, helmet specifications can change. And change again, after they visit the barber.

The NFL has imposed fines for unattached chinstraps. One victim was New England quarterback Tom Brady.

Such wrist (or helmet) slaps are not an option in the NCAA, so coaches and equipment managers must add fashion police to their job description.

At Tech, according to Conner, Johnson often barks, "You've got to buckle up."

At Georgia State, says Bailey, "Coach stresses to the kids, ‘You've gotta keep ‘em buckled.' He'll jump on guys at practice."

Players don't always absorb the playbook, nor do they always heed the helmet advice.

Inside some of those helmets are hard heads.

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