Three days. Three hundred innovators. Up to $2 million in potential grant funding.
On November 13, 2019, the NFL officially kicked off its latest innovation initiative to support the creation of a next generation football helmet – the NFL Helmet Challenge.
Innovators from a wide range of industries gathered in Youngstown, Ohio for a three-day symposium about the state of helmet technology and head injuries in the NFL and to learn more about resources available through the Helmet Challenge. Sessions also included recommendations to successfully apply for up to $2 million in grant funding to develop a helmet prototype.
Among the attendees in Youngstown was NFL Legend LeCharles Bentley. A former center for the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns, Bentley played professionally for six seasons and now runs an elite club dedicated to comprehensive training for offensive linemen.
During a Q&A session at the symposium, Bentley applauded the league's ongoing efforts to improve the game and shared his enthusiasm for the future.
Q: As a former player, do you think it is important that the NFL is committed to funding efforts to advance protective equipment?
A: Oh yeah, absolutely. This is the work. Anything that is going to move the game forward to be beneficial to the men out there playing and trickle down to all levels of the game around the world [is important]. I think another part too is that there is nobody more qualified to do it [than the NFL].
Q: How did you hear about the Helmet Challenge and symposium? What encouraged you to attend?
A: I heard about it through NFL Operations. What brought me here was a curiosity of the work that's been done to drive changes in the game. I want to see behind the curtain. As a former player I think sometimes it's easy to fall into the trap of seeing those changes and not understanding where they come from. Being here gives me some deeper insight into where the game is going and why.
Q: What is your impression of what you've seen and heard so far?
A: Saying I'm blown away would be a bit of an understatement. I think what I'm feeling today is probably what a fan feels like on Sunday, in terms of seeing the best in the world do what they do and make it look so effortless. It's exciting to watch people who are so intelligent and forward-thinking come together to solve an issue. To see the passion behind it and see the minds come together is surreal.
Q: How has your interest in the NFL's health and safety work changed since you were a player?
A: I think that as a player your focus is on maximizing your career. When I played, I was worried about who I was blocking the next game – that was my priority. Now, being on the outside and being a father of five boys, two of whom play football, this is the type of work I'm interested in that will do a better job of removing unnecessary risk for my kids – and that will make sure the game stays around for my boys and my boys' boys to play.
Q: What response have you seen from players around the NFL's efforts to remove unnecessary risk from the game – for example changing rules and banning certain helmets?
A: Athletes in all sports are creatures of habit. Any time change is introduced, you are going to have to weather a storm of pushback. That being said, players do adapt. But the bigger mission is to get the coaches and players at the youth levels to understand the efforts that have taken place so that as the game evolves, they understand how to play the game differently. The idea is to create a new standard of habits that will carry the game into the future.