An example of the helmet and facemask Mississippi State professor Mark Horstemeyer is working on at MSU’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems (CAVS). In July, the NFL and Football Research Inc. announced Horstemeyer’s research into the helmet and the facemask earned him a $20,000 grant as part of the HeadHealth TECH Challenge, which encourages research in protective equipment.
Photo by: Brett Hudson/Dispatch Staff
October 10, 2018 10:44:50 AM
STARKVILLE -- A few thousand feet north of Davis Wade Stadium, in Mississippi State's Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems (CAVS), Dr. Mark Horstemeyer sits in an office surrounded by old football helmets, a few hockey helmets and animal skulls. The skull of an American bison is in a chair against the wall; a ram's skull, horns attached and in tact, is on a shelf next to a window.
In these animals, Horstemeyer finds inspiration for the future of football helmets.
Horstemeyer's research into the helmet and the facemask has earned significant support: the NFL and Football Research Inc. announced in July his research has received a $20,000 grant as part of the HeadHealth TECH Challenge, which exists to stimulate research in protective equipment. The grant was specifically related to his work on a transformative facemask, but his goals for his own research expand far beyond improving a facemask.
The name he gave the company he founded for this research -- Yobel Technologies -- signifies that. The name yobel was used for two reasons. A yobel is a type of ram's horn, which carries its own symbolism given its use in the research, but there is also a Biblical reference. Leviticus 25 describes the yearly tradition of blowing a horn on the Day of Atonement, but on the 50th year, the year of Jubilee, they blew a yobel.
"The analogy is this is a completely new paradigm in football helmets, and let's just forget what everybody else is doing," Horstemeyer told The Dispatch.
His aspirations that reach beyond the facemask start with the animal skulls occupying office furniture.
"We started looking at God's designs, how God engineered features to mitigate shock and absorb energy," Horstemeyer said. "Rams don't get concussions, do they?"
He studied the American bison's skull: he compared their ramming style to that of offensive linemen, short range repetitive blows. He was inspired by the ram horn's ability to take shock wave and transfer it around the spiral to the tip of the horn, where it vibrates out without the skull taking that damage; the woodpecker has a tongue that's able to do something similar. After also studying turtle and armadillo shells, he made some conclusions he thinks he can transfer to football helmets.
"There's three things we're trying to do well: absorb energy, mitigate the shockwave and transfer momentum," Horstemeyer said.
They are working on football helmets and the beginning of similar work into hockey helmets inspired by those principles, but the part of Horstemeyer's work that could be seen quicker is the facemask. He already has a deal with Zenith, a helmet manufacturer with whom they're working to fit their facemask design. The combination of a "special material" -- which he won't identify -- and the geometric design is what he believes makes it the best option in the field.
The design doesn't look like any other facemask on the market, but it also wasn't designed like any other in the market.
"We started with high performance computing, this was all solid," he said, describing a facemask that is more of a solid arc around the front of the helmet than it is a connection of material forming that arc, as seen in today's helmets. Imagine if a facemask had no openings other than the big one players see through, where some place visors. "We told the computer to minimize damage on my brain, and this is what came out.
"It's the geometry and the material. We took little blocks out of everything. It did crossbars, angles, everything."
He believes the facemask mitigates shock wave, but it does more than protect the brain from concussions via sheer force.
On the bottom floor of CAVS -- where the vehicle testing Horstemeyer used to be a part of still goes on to this day -- Horstemeyer has a corner filled with helmets: a current Mississippi State helmet, a North Dakota helmet, an Oregon helmet and more. Many different manufacturers and designs, yet they all have one aspect that doesn't make sense to him: the center of gravity isn't in the middle.
He proves this by turning a helmet upside down and setting it on the concrete floor. If the center of gravity were in the middle of the helmet, it would stay on that point, but it does not: each helmet tilts toward the facemask, where the center of gravity truly lies. The weight of the head already places enough torque on the neck -- to make no mention of the torque applied by football's contact -- and he sees no reason to amplify that torque with off-balance weight. He has designed the facemask to bring that weight back to the base of the helmet.
Horstemeyer has a background in engineering ways to save humans. When MSU built CAVS, Horstemeyer was part of the team that introduced the human element into the advancements made by those designing the car safety systems. In this building, Horstemeyer made a living making collisions safer for humans.
They call football a collision sport, so Horstemeyer jumped in to help.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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