When football season kicked off last month Henderson’s varsity squad launched with a safety advantage. Photo: (C) Ashbridge.

As fans file into J. Oscar Dicks Stadium on Friday night ready to cheer on the now one and one Henderson Warriors Varsity Football team there was little evidence participation in America’s most-watched high school sport has been on a decades-long decline. According to the Nation Federation of State High School Associations, football participation peaked in 2008. Even in good years, like last year, leveling popularity is measured in the number of athletes leaving the sport rather than the number joining.  

Last fall the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that in 2019 the number of football players in Pennsylvania dropped for the eleventh consecutive year but the decline from year to year was lessening. From 2018 to 2019 only 225 players left the sport, or never joined. “That’s not much,” the paper wrote. Considering. 

“To me it’s the most important piece of equipment the kids wear.”

Rob Schellhammer, President, Henderson Booster Club
Despite declining participation football remains high schools most watched sport. Photo: (C) Ashbridge

While there are probably numerous reasons for the decline or at least no research I could find that stated conclusively one way or another, it is hard to think that year after year of concussion data and first-hand stories from aging players still suffering the consequences of their years on the field haven’t played a part. Type concussion into Google and the number one autofill adds “in football.” Number 2? “Concussions in high school football.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that last year the Henderson Booster Club set a goal for itself: upgrade all the team’s helmets with a safer model by the 2023 football season. The project will replace the current helmet, the Riddell Speed, with the Riddell SpeedFlex.

Comparing Helmets to Helmets

According to Virginia Tech, which has been providing unbiased helmet ratings to help consumers make informed decisions since 2011, both helmets receive 5 stars for their ability to prevent concussions. “More stars equate to better protection, with 5 stars representing the best available helmets,” the school states on its website but even within stars there are variances and the Riddell SpeedFlex comes in eight spots higher than the Riddle Speed.

In the football safety game, any boost is a win.  

“To me, it’s the most important piece of equipment the kids wear,” said Henderson Booster Club President Rob Schellhammer who is helping spearhead this initiative. Rob has plenty of experience researching helmets, both for his kids and as a coach for the Little All American Football Association (LAFA), and he knows that while safety is number one for parents, it’s not always the top-selling feature for the athletes. 

“The kids don’t like them to be tight, but if they are not that is where the concussions come in,” he said. 

Concussions remain the top medical concern for high school players. Photo: (C) Ashbridge

The new helmets have a ratchet chin guard design that allows players to easily loosen and readjust between plays. This helps relieve some of the pressure that can lead to headaches. “In the beginning of the season my son would complain of headaches due to the fit. Not only did that fix that, it was giving him a safer helmet,” Rob said.

Unfortunately in the big business of amateur athletics, safety, like most things, comes at a cost. The new helmets are priced roughly $300 more per helmet than the original and with more than 100 players, that’s a pretty big price tag. So the Booster Club has set a target of 25 helmets a year.  

The Booster Club, with the help of the school, parents, and players has so far raised enough to replace more than 50 helmets. In terms of on-field usage, that means all members of the varsity squad are now playing in the new helmets. Of course, the mission won’t be complete until all players, regardless of age or skill level, are in the new helmets and until then all other initiatives are on hold. 

“All the donations we get will go towards the helmets. We want to support the players on and off the field, but our priority is to provide the safest equipment they can be in,” said Rob. 

If you would like to help get our athletes into safer equipment, the Henderson Booster Club is accepting donations through their webpage. If you would like to see them in action on the field, the Warriors take on crosstown rival Rustin at Rustin on Friday night.

Just one final note on equipment. It is only one piece of solving the concussion puzzle. “No helmet is concussion-proof,” Virginia Tech states on their website. “Any athlete can sustain a head injury, even with the very best head protection.” That is why in addition to equipment upgrades the site also advocates for rules changes and more training for coaches to further reduce the risk of injury.

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