Steve Wallace and NFL Concussions: The Solution Was Found Years Ago

Keith Mathews@macguru05Correspondent IIIJuly 29, 2010

10 Sep 1995:  A portrait of offensive tackle Steve Wallace of the San Francisco 49ers during the 49ers 41-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at 3Com Park in San Francisco, California.  Mandatory Credit:  Mike Powell/Allsport
Mike Powell/Getty Images


During the San Francisco 49er’s ‘Team Of The Eighties’ period, the team had a large and genial offensive tackle named Steve Wallace. Steve played from 1987 through 1997 and earned three Super Bowl rings. Steve was introduced to the public and made famous by a then budding TV sports announcer, John Madden, a retired coach of the Oakland Raiders.  Madden brought a new element to NFL sports reporting; he credited and obviously admired the work of the little noted offensive and defensive linemen, “the guys in the trenches”.  Many formerly hard working but obscure linemen like Wallace became household names.

Wallace’s bulk lent considerable momentum to his blocks and he had a habit of leading with his head. So, as he neared the end of his illustrious career he had several dangerous concussions.  But, being a team player and wanting to ‘play through’ the injuries, Steve came up with a novel idea, not replicated again in the NFL, as far as I know.  He found an energy absorbing foam outer liner for his helmet that softened the blows from opposing helmets of hard-shelled hat to hard-shelled hat.  He had the outer shell painted in the same manner as the 49er helmets, and fitted it over his hard-shell helmet.

Sometimes in a heated play the outer shell of foam would be knocked clean off of his helmet, and Madden would laughingly point to him picking up his foam helmet and plunking it back on his hard hat.  But as far as I know, Steve did not suffer further concussions for the rest of his career.

Although Madden mentioned this many times over national TV, the solution was never considered as a solution to the problem of concussions, because at that time the NFL did not consider concussions a problem, period.

From a purely scientific point of view, an energy absorbing outer foam shell on two colliding helmets would significantly reduce the shock that occurs now when two hard-shell helmets collide.  The brain would therefore suffer less damage.  Different materials should be tested, of course, to select the most shock-absorbing material.  The outer shell would weight mere ounces and if made mandatory would not significantly add to the weight that players are asked to carry into the game.

In this day of advanced materials research, it seems to me that an energy absorbing outer shell for hard-shelled helmets, when added to the existing energy-absorbing inner shell, could save many NFL players from debilitating concussive injuries.  My question is why the NFL has not and is not considering this simple, cheap and effective solution to the problem of concussive injuries? 

They should consider and adopt the three layered helmet. And I recommend they name the helmet after Wallace, who first used it 'in the trenches'.