The Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, AL)
July 5, 2022
AUBURN — Dana Marquez was attending a party at the Super Bowl when he met Luke Kuechly. It was just a chance encounter, and neither knew they would soon do business together.
Marquez is Auburn’s associate athletic director and longtime sports equipment guru. Kuechly is a former NFL Pro Bowl linebacker who surprisingly retired at 28 and has since found a second calling trying to lengthen the careers of the next generation of football players.
At least one participant in that next generation felt the impact of Marquez and Kuechly crossing paths.
Within weeks of their meeting, Auburn football linebacker Wesley Steiner took interest in the science behind a product called Q-Collar, which is FDA-authorized for marketing although lacking data evidence of anti-concussive results. It was the start of Steiner’s own crusade to convince teammates to wear the device this season.
Steiner announced a name, image and likeness deal with Q-Collar in May after wearing one around his neck throughout Auburn’s spring practices. He “fell in love” with it, Marquez said, and now Steiner plans to wear one during games.
“If it keeps us more safe,” Steiner said, “why wouldn’t we wear it?”
Introducing an alternative to padded helmets
Not long after the Super Bowl, Marquez got a call from Auburn’s former Under Armour marketing rep, now an executive at Q-Collar, a company in the growing athlete safety marketspace. Protecting football players from repetitive blows to the head is a growing priority as the consequences of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have become revealed.
Marquez has coordinated equipment for Auburn since 2006 and he handles his role with ambition and self-awareness.
“The equipment industry has always gotten this bad rap as, ‘Hey, we’re the laundry guys,’ right?” Marquez said. “But I try to explain to recruits or anybody else: If we don’t do our job right, you don’t play football. It’s very simple. I try to tell people we’re the proactive part of sport.”
So when he was pitched a meeting with Q-Collar, Marquez was intrigued by an alternative to the Guardian Cap that’s debuting as an NFL practice helmet attachment.
“If the helmet manufacturers really sat down and said, ‘Look, this is a really good idea,’ they probably would have made it for the helmet (on their own),” Marquez said. “So you’ve got a third-party vendor putting something on a helmet as the manufacturers of the helmet are saying, ‘You put it on, it’s not us.’ The warranty no longer exists on that helmet.”
The coincidence? Kuechly promotes the collar after having worn it in the NFL, so he joined the presentation sharing first-hand experience – anecdotal evidence is the leading case for the device. Marquez passed along information to the football team and offered them collars to try.
‘Warm,’ uncomfortable then rewarding
Steiner’s backup plan is teaching science. Entrenched in a tough education curriculum doubled with football, he was taking anatomy when he learned about the collar. He was eager to try it — and understand its workings.
He learned the woodpecker theory.
Steiner discussed with his tutor how headaches are caused by the body not supplying the brain with enough blood. The collar applies pressure to two arteries that feed the brain blood.
“By putting more blood in the head, you’re essentially increasing the amount of cushion your brain has before it hits the side of your skull,” Steiner said.
It’s the same principle that allows a woodpecker to peck wood without getting, well, a bird’s version of CTE.
Steiner tried the collar at practice.
“The first time might be the most intense time to wear it,” he said. “Those two ridges on the back of your skull? For one, it was really warm there. I could physically feel like there was more blood going up there.”
It was uncomfortable. But he was patient. The second day, it felt normal. His movement and focus weren’t hindered. After a few more practices, he barely noticed it on his neck. He did notice a change, though.
“I haven’t had a single headache from practice since wearing the collar,” he said. “There’s no throbbing like there would be in the past. Because you’ll hit somebody and it’s not really bad, but it’s like if someone slaps your arm: You kind of still feel the slap slightly, you know? Same idea with a big hit. You hit them and you still kind of feel it in your head.”
That sensation had disappeared entirely.
Advocating with NIL
A collar around a football player’s neck stands out.
Teammates started asking questions about it. Steiner explained and advocated. Eventually he realized if he was going to promote the product, he might as well turn it into an income.
Steiner’s mom, Elisabeth, died in January of lymphoma. The family couldn’t afford insurance for her, and she was denied Medicaid. Afterward, his grandmother Diann was living alone.
Steiner was able to raise more than $75,000 for her with a GoFundMe. NIL deals are another way for him to earn money. His grandmother was recently hospitalized with kidney issues, so he has family and his own future in mind.
In a trying year, he took to heart the importance of short- and long-term mental health. He thought back on moments in his football career when big hits caused an eye to go droopy and out of focus. His interest in Q-Collar grew from that.
“I can’t think of a football player who hasn’t had a concussive hit,” he said. “Maybe not diagnosed, but definitely had concussive hits and maybe just didn’t realize it.”
So he pitched the collar to teammates and asked Auburn officials to set up presentations. When his NIL deal went through compliance, the only hiccup was ensuring that Steiner was not an on-field advertisement. Q-Collar manufactured Auburn sleeves to be worn over the collar, so now Steiner can wear it this fall.
He has found consistent interest among teammates, but the idea hasn’t stuck. Marquez emphasizes the importance of not mandating anything. Presentations will continue this summer into fall.
“The guys who did try and wear it, they were really turned off by the adjustment period,” Steiner said. “It’s not just an easy one-click fix. You give it a couple days.”
But the most challenging hurdles have oddly stemmed from aesthetics.
“It’s like everything else, right?” Marquez said. “This game is such a ‘look’ thing. If they look cool, they’ll wear it not knowing if it works or not. But if they don’t look cool in it, they don’t like wearing it.”
Steiner understands that impulse against a “goofy” look. His counter is simple.
“Stop thinking so shallow, all right?” he says. “This is big picture here. This is for your kids’ future. This ain’t just for you. That’s what I’m telling myself.”