Brady Rude could have had a pillow dressed in bubble wrap strapped to his helmet when he and teammate Max Oswalt collided, and the outcome likely wouldn't have been different.
No helmet was going to spare Oswalt from a concussion.
Rude accidentally connected head-to-head with Oswalt as they covered a kickoff during an eighth-grade Newman junior tackle football game last season. The ball carrier eluded both of them, and the resulting friendly fire knocked Oswalt out for the rest of the season.
"Brady was coming from one direction, Max was coming from the other," Newman junior tackle president Jube Manzano recalls. "We knew right from the start that Brady was exceptional. He was a young man amongst kids."
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment recently urged athletes and parents to thoroughly understand the limitations of equipment.
Most of the area's junior tackle teams put every dime they can afford into keeping helmets and pads up to snuff. The Riddell Revolution, a fine helmet, is the bumper de jour.
But that's the operative word – bumper. Studies have revealed that even the most innovative headwear cannot stop concussions.
Another operative word – headwear, which includes a new line of soccer headbands whose marketers, of course, will tell you they reduce concussions and intracranial injury.
"Currently, there is no definitive scientific research linking mouth guards, headbands, supplements or other specialty products to a reduction in concussion risk or severity," NOCSAE Executive Director Mike Oliver said. "For companies to suggest otherwise misleads athletes, parents and coaches into a dangerous false sense of protection."
According to CGH Medical Center's Dr. Michael DeFranco and numerous other physicians, what's more important is that equipment fits. If a helmet is too big, any innovation is rendered useless, as it won't prevent the brain from slamming into the side of the skull as if the player was wearing a vintage 1920s leather helmet.
That puts an emphasis on who is fitting athletes.
Typically in the youth ranks, it's the coaches – often athletes' fathers who volunteer while their sons play. Obviously, they're not professionally trained equipment managers.
"That's one place where I'm finding out if you should be a coach," Amboy junior tackle president Todd Hobbs said. "It's supposed to be tight. It's not going to be comfortable. It's not a ballcap."
Newman's athletic trainer, Andy Accardi, tirelessly conducts seminars on helmet fitting and removal and has visited several Sauk Valley communities to share his knowledge.
He also is available to both Newman's varsity and junior tackle athletes during their neighboring practices and administers the same preseason assessments for junior tackle athletes as he does for varsity. That's how it was determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that Oswalt was concussed.
Manzano cringes – and often intervenes – when he sees a coach fail to practice caution while removing the helmet of a player who's shaken up.
After all, it's often the cumulative lesser shaking of the head that adds up to concussions.
Above all else, equipment takes a back seat to proper training. Sterling High School athletic trainer Andi Sumerfelt never had to diagnose recent graduate and SVM 2011 Football Player of the Year Alejandro Rivera with a concussion. Pretty impressive, considering Rivera played linebacker and running back, positions in the middle of the biggest on-field collisions.
What kept him safe? Proper technique, which has been ingrained in him since he first starting playing in junior tackle.
"That's pretty much everything right there," Rivera said. "Some of it is luck, but 95 percent of it is technique. Coaches stress form and technique all season long. I'll be the first to tell you that if you do something wrong, you're going to get hurt."
That's why Manzano, a downright delightful person, offers a morbid warning when he first sits his players down. He and his coaches teach them how to tackle. But he also tells them improper tackling, especially leading with the head, could kill them.
To read more from our special series on sports concussion, please check out The Hidden Injury project page on saukvalley.com. Click here to visit.