CARLSBAD, Calif. — Gripping the facemask, Nick Esayian held up a football helmet from one of the most recognized brands in the game.
He put it down and then offered the helmet his company has begun to manufacture out of a small warehouse space in Carlsbad.
The difference in weight was striking. The Riddell Speed Flex helmet comes in at 5.2 pounds. The new LIGHT Helmet LS1 is 3 pounds.
“Tell me,” Esayian said, “that if somebody duct-taped 2 1/2 pounds to your head and you walked around with that all day that you wouldn’t notice it.”
That single scenario is the premise with which Esayian and his partners in Safer Sports LLC have dived into the difficult, litigation-filled business of manufacturing football helmets. Going against the trend in helmet making, they believe lighter is better and safer, and that their helmets will significantly reduce the risk of brain injury.
“We’re going to be the Spartans in this,” Esayian said. “I want to feel like we made a difference.”
Last September, Safer Sports acquired the assets of SG Helmets, an Indiana-based company founded by Bill Simpson, a leading designer of racing helmets who got into the football helmet business in 2011.
They rebranded as LIGHT Helmets, and have begun making helmets inside a 5,500-square foot space off El Camino Real. Three versions of their first helmet, the LS1, became available in the spring at retail prices ranging from $325 to $550.
These are difficult times for many businesses related to football, which is experiencing significant losses in participation at the youth level because of concerns over the potential for traumatic brain injury.
The largest of the football helmet manufacturers, Riddell Inc., is engaged in numerous lawsuits, including those filed by former NFL players and a family in Ohio whose son — later diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — drowned after suffering a seizure while fishing on a boat.
“If somebody came to us and said, ‘Here’s $10 million, go start a company’ — would I start a football helmet company? Absolutely not,” Esayian said. “The barriers to entry … for insurance, or the cost of development, or the litigation that exists, or the fact that football is a shrinking sport … ”
Still, Esayian, a retired race car driver who said he suffered seven concussions, sped forward because he believes his company has a revolutionary helmet, and he has plans to use the same materials for others sports, including hockey.
Esayian has started and owned marketing businesses, and his primary partners are fellow San Diegans — COO Justin Bert, a real estate specialist; CFO Joseph Hegener, a principal in an asset management company, and race car driver Tony Gaples.
Building on the more than $5 million in research and development invested by Simpson, who sold 16,000 football helmets (in an annual total market of approximately 1.3 million units), LIGHT Helmets is using technology that is very different from the biggest manufacturers, such as Riddell, Schutt and Zenith.
Picture a high-end motorcycle helmet, and that comes closer to representing the LIGHT product than a traditional football helmet.
The LIGHT helmet is composed of a Kevlar composite outer shell that the makers say more widely distributes the energy of the initial hit.
On the inside are two pieces pressed tightly together of Armor Foam, an expanded polypropylene material that has been used in motor racing and fighter jet helmets.
While traditional helmets have various small pads that sit on the head, the foam in the LIGHT helmet touches all points of the skull, and thus more evenly distributes the energy of blows, the makers said.
The final layer closest to the head is auxetic polyurethane foam, a cushion material that expands, rather than contracting, on impact. LIGHT has an exclusive deal with its maker, Auxadyne, which in March earned an $86,688 grant from the NFL to further develop and test its product.
The facemask is half as light and twice as strong as those on other helmets, Esayian said, because it is made of hollow chrome-moly steel that was first used by Simpson.
Esayian contends that going light is better at a time when studies have shown that football helmets have been getting heavier over the decades as manufacturers try to make them stronger for testing that is performed by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) and the NFL.
“I’m not going to make a helmet just to pass a test,” Esayian said.
A 2012 study noted that helmets weighed less than one pound in the 1970s, pre-NOCSAE, and reached a weight of 2.5 pounds in the early 2000s. Most continue to be made of hard plastic.
In the most recent testing of “varsity” helmets for older children and adults performed by Virginia Tech, 18 helmets, including LIGHT’s LS1, received its highest five-star rating. Twelve helmets weighed more than 4 pounds, and VT’s top-scoring headgear, the Schutt F7 LTD ($975 retail), also was the heaviest at 5.1 pounds.
Esayian contends that the race for strength has ignored other key factors in why people suffer concussions and brain injury.
“If a player is running at 20 mph and a 225-pound safety pounds him in the chest, his head is going to snap forward,” Esayian said. “That’s a brain slap, and the extra weight is part of the equation. Nobody wants to talk about that stuff.”
For kids, the impact is even worse, Esayian believes. The weight of the helmet more violently throws their head to the side because they have underdeveloped neck and chest muscles, he said. The weight of the helmet and facemask leads them to dip their head more, he contends, while also causing more fatigue as games and practices go along.
Esayian cited a 2016 Wayne State University study on helmet weight that reported, “Since improvements in helmet design to reduce head acceleration have not resulted in a corresponding decrease (in concussions), a possible explanation is that the incidence of concussion may not entirely relate to the magnitude of head acceleration. Forces in the upper neck may be a factor.”
Dave Straight, a parent who met Esayian in La Costa Canyon Pop Warner football, is sold on the LIGHT concept. He recently stopped by the LIGHT offices to pick up a new helmet for his son, Zach, a 13-year-old who plays quarterback in LCC Pop Warner
Straight said his son suffered a non-football concussion in the offseason, and the father was looking for the best possible protection for him in the upcoming season — Zach’s second in tackle football after years of playing flag.
Dave Straight, a doctor of physical therapy, said, “The most important sales point for me is, I work with a lot of auto accident patients, and I know just a little bit lighter weight is less stress on the neck. I tell people to hold a 12- to 15-pound bowling ball and shake your wrist around. Then hold a lighter one. It makes all the difference.”
His son, Straight said, “is going to get hit over and over again. It’s the micro-trauma over the years that accumulates in the brain. If I can take some of the stress off him and protect his neck, too, it’s a no-brainer for me.”
LIGHT faces a daunting road, with the established companies eager to hold their market share. With a late start for the 2019 football season, Esayian is hoping the NFL will test his helmets at midseason, though pros can wear them now because they’re not part of a group of banned helmets.
The company has sent sample helmets to the New York Giants, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks. Among the universities receiving helmets for tryout are San Diego State, San Diego, Georgia, Maryland, and the Naval Academy.
Locally, Cathedral Catholic High School is trying the LIGHT helmets.
LIGHT also made a significant inroad when it became the preferred helmet provider for the California Youth Football Alliance.
“Football is under attack for a lot of reasons,” Esayian said.
He said he grew up in Wisconsin as a slightly built, constantly bullied kid until he started playing football in high school. He contends football strengthened his outlook and character, and he wanted the same thing for his boys, who are 13 and 15.
“We want to give kids a chance to do this,” Esayian said. “I don’t think playing a lot of Fortnite is confidence-developing and makes you resilient for what you face in regular life. Playing this sport and the other great sports, we need to protect that.”