October 27, 2023
ROCHESTER — Will Smith shared many of the same thoughts as his Mayo High School football teammates when Guardian Caps first made an appearance at the beginning of the Spartans’ fall camp.
What the heck are those?
“I thought, ‘Why are we wearing these?'” the senior offensive lineman said. “‘How are these going to help us out?'”
But then the season got going and it quickly became clear to the Spartans they were no longer in Class 5A. Especially up front.
“The difference in competition between 5- and 6A is vast,” senior lineman Remington Gau said, “especially in the linemen. The linemen in 6A are so much bigger than linemen in 5A.”
Injuries, specifically concussions, began to stack up for the Spartans.
Smith was knocked out of the third game of the season against Farmington with one. He then decided those “dorky” caps that he and many of the Spartans wore during practice, would be quite useful in games.
After all, he had seen a noticeable difference while using it.
“It’s helped me out tremendously. I feel like I can just block them harder if I want to, if that makes sense,” Smith said. “These are way more protective than just the helmet. … I think everybody on our team should be wearing them.”
As a sign of unity, the rest of the line joined Smith in wearing the padded soft shells before the Lakeville South game and have been sporting them in games since. The boys up front are starting to get used to them.
“I feel like as soon as I started wearing it, though, it really does help,” sophomore lineman Brandon Lillis said. “The more you will actually play with them on and practice with them on, you don’t even really notice a difference.”
Of course, there are still some that are skeptical, including Gau, who said he prefers just the helmet. But there is a reason why the NFL mandated them for linemen to use in practice starting in 2022, before expanding it to other position groups like running backs, wide receivers and linebackers this season.
They’ve been proven to work.
“We issued the Guardian Cap because we saw there could be a force reduction if one player wore the cap — this is in the preseason last year — if one player wore the cap, we saw about a 10 percent reduction in the forces transmitted to the player. If both players involved in a helmet-to-helmet collision wore it, you’re talking about 20 percent,” NFL executive vice president of communications for public affairs Jeff Miller said in a press conference at the annual league meeting in March of 2023.
According to Miller, the NFL’s data revealed a 52% reduction in concussions during the first few weeks of the 2022 preseason when players were wearing the Guardian Caps. That’s in comparison to a three-year average of the same position groups.
Many high schools use them in practice, but it’s rare to see them in games. But the Spartans could be the trend-setters.
“We’re going to order another 21. Or maybe hopefully, at least get enough for the varsity team,” coach Donny Holcomb said. “If they can help that much, it’s a no-brainer, right? It’s well worth it.”
The Guardian Cap will be on full display when the No. 5-seeded Spartans (3-5) play at No. 4 St. Michael-Albertville (5-3) to open up the Class 6A postseason at 7 p.m. Friday.
It’s been a trying season at times for the two-time defending Section 1, Class 5A champs, but the fact that the program seems to be going the extra mile for the safety of their players helps plant the seeds for the future. It sure isn’t lost on the players.
“That’s the difference here because they’re so dedicated to keeping us safe,” Lillis said. “They want us to play as well as possible and be healthy.”