Editor's note: This is one in a series on new technology being developed by the leading football-equipment manufacturers. None of the products mentioned in this article are endorsed by the NFL.
By Bill Bradley, contributing editor
When you think about Russell Athletic, you normally think of jerseys, T-shirts and sweatpants. But one of Russell's recent goals has been to go beneath the jersey and provide state of the art padding for football players.
Sarah Gholston, Russell's vice president of design and technology, has been spearheading the move into sporting goods hardware with the introduction of the CarbonTek shoulder pads. Test players say the two-piece padding system wears more like a vest and is lighter than any protective equipment they've worn.
Gholston talked to NFL Evolution last week about how the idea for space-age shoulder pads came about, the Division I college football team that provided the beta test and what football players are saying about it.
Sarah, why did you get involved in sporting good technology?
I started with Bike Athletic Company back in the mid-1990s, right out of school. If you're familiar with Bike, they actually have a pretty deep history in the protective category. Russell purchased Bike Athletic (in 2003). Russell Athletic was purchased by Fruit of the Loom and now we're all one big happy family.
Isn't Russell known more for the athletic wear than protect equipment?
How we got into the CarbonTek shoulder pads was we did have a protective arm of our sporting goods company, which was Bike. ... We do have different brands within the bigger portfolio that deals with hard goods. But, yes, Russell Athletic mainly deals in the apparel side of the business. Particularly in football, Russell does maintain the market share of institutional football uniforms.
We had been thinking about getting into the protective category with Russell Athletic and we knew if we entered into it with protective pads, especially in the category of football, we wanted to come out with something that was really different. On the apparel side, we are really known for our fabrics, our construction and our innovation. We wanted to be the same thing in protective gear. We didn't want to come out with a shoulder-pad system that was like everyone else had by just changing the color or coming up with a new name. We wanted to change from the inside out with materials that had been not been used before and had been proven in some other industry.
How long has the CarbonTek shoulder pads been in development?
From the very beginning, which we started this entire process with a clean slate ... we've been working on this project for close to two years.
At what point did Russell decide carbon fiber was the new material needed for shoulder pads?
The CarbonTek shoulder pads really are a system. It's in two parts. It's really the two parts combined that give it all of its impact advantages. We started with the vest system, which has our OS technology -- it stands for Oblate Steroid foam technology. ... We started off with this foam and a golf-ball size foam piece from the very beginning of this adventure. We didn't want to use the same type of foam that was out there in the industry. We teamed up with a tier 1 automotive supplier -- who knows more about impacts than an automotive industry company? -- and we worked on a dual-density foam with them. It's not just the foam itself, but it's the shape that gives us additional impact dispersion. The shape gives us a larger impact area, which in turn gives us a dispersion of the impact over the entire pad at a much higher rate than our competitors.
So as we finished the foam construction and we were incorporating it into a compression vest -- which has a whole lot of benefits to it as well, which include range of motion, moisture management and anti-microbial properties -- we needed to figure out how we wanted to create the skeleton. We knew we didn't want to go in the direction of a standard plastic shell. Then through our conversations with the automotive folks, we got connected with some aeronautical carbon fiber suppliers. The attributes of the carbon fiber itself and its weight reduction and its abilities again for additional impact dispersion. It has a lot of fantastic heat-release properties as well. It was actually a natural progression to add it on top of what we already had, which was really a superior foam system.
Often carbon fiber in sporting goods is equated with products like road bicycles. How are the CarbonTek shoulder pads being received in the marketplace?
"It's been received extremely well. We field-tested it all the way through since last fall as we had 11 pads on Auburn University players who played in the BCS national championship game -- all starters. Really from the very beginning of the field-testing, all the way to the (end of Auburn's season), it really has gained a lot of momentum. The weight reduction alone is one of the first things the athletes talk about. The way that the vest wears is tight and snug. It actually gives you a wider range of motion. But it's not so bulky, so it's a second skin kind of feel. The carbon fiber shell is already molded, so you don't need a heavy buckling system to create the arch in the pads. So, you have a lightweight, already pre-formed mold, great mobility. It already has holes in the front and the back, which give it additional ventilation in the system. You know how sometimes after a play you see players grab their pads and kind of re-adjust it? The players said in our feedback they went to grab the pad and realized they didn't need to move it back in place.
How many major colleges are ordering these new shoulder pads?
We had another 85 pads out through the spring -- all major Division I universities-- and we're in the process of collecting those orders. It's kind of spread out across the country.
What NFL players are planning to use them for the upcoming season?
We started with our (contracted) Russell athletes, so we have Pierre Garcon and Colt McCoy of the Redskins and Mark Ingram of the Saints. They have been a big part of this development and testing from the very beginning. And then we've had a lot of players that wore it last season and are taking it to the NFL. Fortunately, Auburn has a lot of guys heading to the NFL.
Can this be called a slow introduction of these pads to all levels of football?
Yes. This is a new venture for Russell Athletic, getting into this protective category. We didn't want to do anything that had already been done. ... There had not been a lot of significant advancements in technology in this category for some time. We wanted to bring to market a whole new approach to a shoulder-pad system, so we're slowly rolling this out slowly. In field testing and independent lab testing, it has really out-tested its competitors, so we wanted to launch it first at the highest levels of football.
What are the players saying in terms of impact protection?
When we started this ... there was no standard for impact testing for shoulder pads, not like helmets with NOCSAE. ... We were surprised too when we got into this. When we realized there wasn't any, we reached out to Dr. Richard Brandt (a New York physics professor who has been involved in sports testing for decades). We said, "We need you to help us come up with a standard testing method than can replicate impacts that are seen on the field. Obviously, we know there are lots of variables in a game situation, but how do you replicate that as close as you can in a lab setting?" What we found was the disbursement of the impact was far greater in our pads than our competitor's pads. When took the same pads and field-tested them with our athletes, they almost exactly echoed what we found in the lab testing. ... What they were saying to us is, "I know I'm getting hit and I know I'm getting hit hard, but I'm not feeling it at the exact location of the hot spot of the impact. It is spreading over the entire pad, so my recovery from the hit is a lot faster." That is almost exactly what we found from the data Dr. Brandt had run for us.
Every facet of your development, testing and rollout seems to be different.
Everybody is looking for the equipment or the apparel to help them perform better and recover faster. I think we've come up with a product that can really make a difference. Every portion of this product was very deliberate. In rolling it out, we found a lot of other benefits, like players say that because of the range of motion and wearing this as a vest -- and not as a bulky system over their shoulders -- they're able to wrap up players on tackles better. When they're tackling, they have more range of motion. The padding system itself has holes in it so the breathability is much greater. And the system comes in two parts, so you can remove the exoskeleton and launder the padding in the washer and line-dry it. Everything about it, from the care to the way it works, is different than anything that has been on the field.
What's next for Russell? Does the company get into more hardware for football players?
We're already in the planning stages of taking this CarbonTek technology and extending it to other protective categories. We're in development for fall 2015 with girdles and all the other things that go around a football player.
Any plans to make football helmets?
We're probably not going to take this into any helmetry at this time. We're really excited about the other categories and we're going stay focused on that right now.