July 11, 2012


Armor on the Field: The NFL's Headlong Race to Build the Unbreakable Linebacker (Sean Conboy, July 9, 2012, Wired)

Rob Vito stood at the front of a hotel conference room in Phoenix one day last August, a custom Kevlar vest strapped over his blue dress shirt. Vito is a large man, and the shiny black suit of armor strained to cover his belly. But he wasn't concerned about fashion, or even looking good. He had a point to make, and wanted to make it with flair.

He raised a carbon-fiber hockey stick over his head, looked out over the 150 or so members of the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society gathered before him and challenged any one of them to whack him with it.

A murmur went through the crowd. People looked at each other. These were professional trainers, and they knew what a shot to the gut could do to a man. But Vito had just spent 10 minutes telling anyone in shouting distance that Kevlar is a miracle material capable of stopping a .44 caliber bullet. Finally, two members of the Edmonton Oilers training staff took the bait.

"Are you serious?" one of them asked from the middle of the room.

"Dead serious," Vito replied, waving the stick as if to taunt them. "I want you to hit me with this hockey stick as hard as you can."

One of the men stepped up and hit Vito with a tepid cross-check. Vito didn't flinch. "Come on," he barked. "Harder." The trainer obliged, hitting Vito so hard the stick nearly snapped in two. Vito's belly shook and quaked as he doubled over. The crowd gasped. But after hamming it up a moment, Vito stood up and roared with laughter.

"Is that all you've got?" he asked the trainer. "No wonder you guys lose so much."

The room erupted with laughter, but the trainers from Edmonton were all business. They placed an order for Vito's Kevlar pads on the spot.

Vito has been taking a lot of orders lately. He's the charismatic CEO of Unequal Technologies, a Philadelphia company that manufactures military-grade Kevlar padding for sports equipment. Since 2010, Vito has been touting Kevlar as the best shock-suppression material in the world and boasting that his patented "EXO Skeleton CRT" -- CRT for "concussion reduction technology" -- absorbs as much as a quarter of the force a player takes to the head or chest, significantly reducing the risk of injury.

"If Kevlar can stop a bullet, it can damn sure stop a blitz," Vito told Wired.

Over the past year, his pitch has convinced more than 20 NFL and NHL teams to use his pads in their equipment. Two dozen professional players are using EXO Skeleton CRT pads in their helmets, and more than 100 are wearing it in shoulder pads, elbow pads and other gear. As the NHL and NFL grapple with an epidemic of concussions, Kevlar-reinforced helmets are increasingly viewed as a magic bullet. The technology is proving particularly attractive to players who have sustained head trauma and desperately want to keep playing. And later this summer, Vito plans to take his product mainstream, unveiling a multi-million dollar advertising campaign aimed at the hundreds of thousands of youth league players around the U.S.

But in the rush to make their players unbreakable, pro teams aren't asking many questions of Vito beyond how quickly he can do the job. Neurologists intimately familiar with sports-related concussions warn that there is no scientific evidence that Kevlar can reduce the risk of head trauma. Worse, they fear the pads could make the problem worse by masking symptoms. The leagues have yet to independently test the effects of Kevlar, and neurologists - including one who has treated many concussed NFL and NHL players -- expressed surprise when told it was being installed in helmets.

Posted by at July 11, 2012 5:12 AM

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