The University of Alabama Brainchild That Could Change College Football

Christopher WalshCollege Football National ColumnistOctober 25, 2016

Alabama's sideline medical tent has gone from an idea to being sold to other college football programs.
Alabama's sideline medical tent has gone from an idea to being sold to other college football programs.Courtesy of Kinematic Sports

It was the second game of the 2015 season, the University of Alabama football team was hosting Middle Tennessee at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and everyone in the stands near engineering student Jared Cassity thought he was crazy.

A Crimson Tide player had just gotten hurt and required help from the athletic training staff, so the crowd was subdued with concern. Except Cassity was excited. He knew something that everyone else did not.

As the player headed off the field and toward the examination table on the sideline, head football trainer Jeff Allen leaned into his radio attached to his shirt and said "Put it up," resulting in the sudden debut of the Crimson Tide's quick-set medical tent behind the bench. The confused fans who noticed kept quiet, wondering what had just popped up in the blink of an eye, while Cassity celebrated.

"It was sort of my 'eureka' moment," said Cassity, not in terms of discovery, but how he had become part of something that was making its mark on college football and beyond. In some ways—particularly how the tents allow for more comfortable, honest interactions between doctors and players—they could change the game.

The tent is now called the SidelinER, and it's popping up on sidelines all over college football. It surrounds the trainer's table behind the bench, with the opening six-and-a-half-feet tall so fans in the stands can still see over it. The key is the quick-spring mechanism that allows instant setup and collapsing as required.

More than 60 colleges around the country and the Buffalo Bills in the NFL are using them this season, with more having placed orders. That's remarkable, considering at this time a year ago there was only one in existence.

Colleges Using The SidelinER (Through September)
Alabama New Mexico
ArkansasNorthwestern
Arkansas StateOhio State
Boise StateOle Miss
ClemsonSMU
Florida State South Alabama
Furman South Carolina
GeorgiaJacksonville State
Hamilton Samford
IllinoisTroy
KentuckyUWA
LehighStanford
LouisvilleStony Brook
MarshallTCU
MarylandVanderbilt
Miami (FL)Washington
MinnesotaWest Virginia
Mississippi StateWisconsin
MissouriWyoming
Kinematic Sports

"It's just super-functional for us," said Rob Scheidegger, football athletic trainer for the Washington Huskies, who put in their order after the season started and had it shipped directly to Tucson in time for their game at Arizona on Sept. 24.

"It's 100 percent about protecting our athletes' privacy," he continued. "One of the biggest things that you see nowadays are injury reports, and our kids, you know, are 18-to-22-year-old kids, and a lot of them want to keep their protected health information to themselves. They don't necessarily want everyone to know what's going on all the time."

That was the initial intent of the medical tent as well, the origins of which go back to May 2015. That's when Allen and Chuck Karr, Alabama's dean for the College of Engineering, were brainstorming for ideas about things that could potentially help the football program. They had worked together on a previous project, a portable water-spray system Allen and his staff use to cool players during practices in the Alabama heat without stopping or interrupting drills.

Allen was frustrated by the way he had to examine and diagnose player injuries out in the open. Between television cameras, people in the stands and those in the press box essentially looking over his shoulder, as well as fans clamoring toward the trainer's table on the sideline following every injury (and taking photos), there was almost no privacy. He thought the players deserved better.

"Imagine going to the doctor's office and getting on the table in the lobby, in front of 30 or 40 people," he said. "Now imagine 100,000 people watching you."

So Allen grabbed a marker and started drawing up what he had in mind to Karr.

"I need something that's going to lay down and come up almost like an umbrella, that's going to cover this but be up and down in a [snap], real quick," Allen said. "Could you build something like this?"

"Yeah, we can build it," was the immediate response.

Allen hoped maybe it could be done by the end of the season, but Karr didn't delay. It quickly became the senior design project of four students—Cassity, Christian Parris, Jared Porteous and Patrick Powell—who didn't really know what they were volunteering for when they agreed to build something for class credit on a compressed time schedule.

Cassity still remembers Allen's initial drawing of what he envisioned.

"It looked like a stick with a semicircle over it," he said.

Twelve days later, after some "garage engineering," they had the first prototype using PVC pipe and a bed sheet. They went back and forth with Allen to fine-tune the design, and a couple of weeks later a working model was built with a metal frame and lightweight cover.

Head coach Nick Saban's only reaction to the prototype was to say that if it was good for the players, he was all for it. Southeastern Conference and NCAA rules were checked and sightline tests conducted as the group tried to think of any and every potential obstacle.

"I'll never forget it. I'm thinking, This thing's going to work," Allen said when the prototype was shown to school officials. "It's going to be fantastic."

But Allen also realized that it was going to get a lot of attention from fans, media and other people in his profession. While everyone involved had a sort of "can't believe nobody had thought of this before" attitude, they started to realize what a unique opportunity it was for the university.

Considered the intellectual property of the school, arrangements were made to file for a patent. Eventually it sparked the creation of the engineering department program I-CAST, the Integrated Center for Applied Sports Technology, to take similar ideas to fruition.

"It's a great opportunity for our students in the College of Engineering to work on a real-world problem," Karr said. "That's always a huge plus for our students; they would much rather do that than work on something that may have been a little bit contrived. So that's the first plus. The second plus is, despite popular opinion, our engineering students are people, too, and are pretty big Alabama sports fans.

"The third thing that's a huge benefit to the College of Engineering is everyone likes to have some sort of association with a world-class entity, and there's no question about it—that's absolutely the football program at the University of Alabama."

Allen and his staff brought the tent to the season opener in 2015 against Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, but didn't use it. Instead, it took another month for the magnitude of what had been accomplished to start becoming apparent.

It was Oct. 10. Georgia was playing Tennessee, and Bulldogs star running back Nick Chubb suffered his horrific knee injury near the sideline. In addition to the replays, CBS had an overhead camera and another nearby that caught every moment as the medical staff tried to help him. Chubb's agonizing pain was on full display for the world to see, even after being helped to the bench.

Wade Payne/Associated Press

Later that evening, Alabama was hosting Arkansas, and Crimson Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland was shook up during a play. As he headed toward the sideline, ESPN reporter Holly Rowe zeroed in when the tent sprang up.

"Her jaw just dropped," Allen said.

Ragland turned out to be OK and returned to the field, and the tent became the story. When she finally got a chance to talk with Allen near the end of the game, her first question was, "What in the world is that?"

It was an immediate hit with the players.

"I love having that privacy," senior linebacker Reuben Foster said. "I don't want anybody from back home worried about me or nothing, or somebody to say the wrong thing because it's really nothing. Just go out there, get an oil change and just come on back out."

The tent had other advantages that had not been anticipated. As the season progressed, Allen and the other Alabama trainers found that the players were more comfortable and honest when shielded, and fans weren't yelling for them to "suck it up" and get back on the field. He especially saw a difference when dealing with concussion issues.

Others are still being discovered.

"It's also protecting the practitioners and athletes from coaches who are, Hey, what's going on?" Scheidegger said. "You don't want to be rushed when you're looking at someone and trying to give them good medical advice about, Hey, should he be allowed back into the game? You don't want to feel the pressures of the game. It's smart for them to really take a minute and really evaluate these injuries."

Although there's no way to know for certain, more open and honest conversations have the potential to enable players to avoid further injuries, recurring injuries or long-term issues.

"I think from a patient-privacy standpoint it's a tremendous value, but [it is] also improving our medical exam, that's what we saw," Allen said. "When we take kids in there they're a lot calmer, we were more relaxed. It's almost like you literally went into a doctor's office. I think it improved our ability to really evaluate and diagnose issues on the sideline."

Alabama head trainer Jeff Allen, left, came up with the idea of a having a medical tent on the Alabama sideline.
Alabama head trainer Jeff Allen, left, came up with the idea of a having a medical tent on the Alabama sideline.Butch Dill/Associated Press

Consequently, his phone started ringing more—a lot more. Among the initial calls was a colleague at a Power Five school who said his coach had demanded that they have a similar tent made immediately. When he called his engineering department he was told, "Go down to Wal-Mart and buy a pop-up tent. We're not interested."

Now that program can buy a version of the real thing. With help from the university, Cassity and Powell created the startup, Tuscaloosa-based company Kinematic Sports and are now developing and selling the SidelinER.

It sells for $5,000, but money can be recouped by selling advertising on the cover. The company had to purchase the licensing rights from the university, which still gets a share of the royalties (Allen doesn't get a cut but has invested in it), and then had a host of other issues to navigate.

"The cover was the biggest challenge for me, how to manufacture it, what types of materials to use," Powell said. "Obviously, customization is a big part of our business. So how were we going to do that? Who would do the printing?

"There's limitations to all that stuff. My background is definitely not in fabrics."

Seeing a player get looked at on a sideline trainer's table may soon be a thing of the past in football.
Seeing a player get looked at on a sideline trainer's table may soon be a thing of the past in football.Gene Puskar/Associated Press

But even he's slightly amazed how far they've all come in a year. During Alabama's game against Ole Miss this season, both sidelines used a SidelinER, and the Crimson Tide's version had a window stripe along the top so Allen could look out if necessary. Across the country, Stanford vs. Washington was another game where both teams used the tent.

Kinematic is even getting orders from high school programs.

But the potential goes beyond football. Next year, the company hopes to branch out into other sports and other medical areas. With the latest version weighing 60 pounds and fitting into a duffel bag, one could be used for triage by the military or paramedics and fire departments dealing with accident victims.

Cassity can't help but wonder how useful they might have been following the 2011 tornadoes in Tuscaloosa and the region.

"Right now, I guess the biggest challenge is making deliveries, not taking orders," Cassity said. "It's a good problem to have."

                     

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter: @WritingWalsh.