Concussions and player safety s a topic that is top priority in the NFL. With the recent premiere of “Concussion” in theatres starring Will Smith, people unfamiliar with the topic will have their own opinions, thus shining a brighter light on the game watched by millions every week. But it’s more than concussions that are hurting the players. Recently, I spoke with Dr, Patrick Kerr about his Kerr Collar, player safety and another injury that does not get the same attention, but should.
The GMs Perspective: If you don’t mind, what is your background and how did you get involved in sports injury research?
Dr. Patrick Kerr: I have a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Life University. When I was playing football through Pop Warner, high school, and into college, I made a neck device made out of an old football neck collar called the “Adams Roll”. The history of neck protection in the NFL is quite interesting. You have people like Howie Long and Jack Lambert wearing the old white Adams Roll around their neck. They had it placed not so strategically where it was more of a cosmetic need. Eric Dickerson used to wear it and about 35 percent of a football team was using it.
The Adams Roll was a very soft piece of foam, but you could take medical tape and tape it down to make it hard and strategically place it up underneath where the helmet would engage with it. This was even before I knew about how the head and neck functioned together during collision. It just made sense to me as I was playing linebacker at the time. The Cowboy Collar was the next real neck protection device to come out. It is an extension restrictor; as a player goes into tackle it was meant to stop a player’s neck from going backwards.
As I became a Chiropractor specializing in how the head transitions of the first bone in the neck, I actually understood that it’s a bad idea to have anything in the back of a football player’s head. Number one; as you go into tackle, you can’t raise your head if you have an extension restrictor. It keeps you in a loaded position. Number two; it decreases your range of motion while you’re playing the game, which is another disadvantage for the product. A third reason is, if you/we are teaching heads up tackling as a national program for all coaches to be certified in, we should not have anything in the back of a football players head.
As I became a chiropractor, in the back of my mind I always had this football neck protection device that I had made myself. I wanted to create something that was a universal device that really understood how the head and neck work during collision. I had an idea about ten years ago that I tested at the Virginia Tech Center for Injury Biomechanics. Some of the first actual dynamic neck testing that had ever been done in football was done at Virginia Tech, by me. There was very little understanding of the neck in football. I actually think the neck is the most vulnerable piece of the body during collision and it’s literally the place of the body that we don’t protect. There are reasons for that. Neck sizes are different, shoulder pads are different, and players don’t want to be restricted in any way. Like I said, there are many reasons why we haven’t addressed the neck in football, but with the Kerr Collar, I think we’ve really understood that you can actually decrease force to the neck and you decrease how the head and neck move excessively/biomechanically during collision.
The first testing we did was test the Kerr Collar against the Cowboy Collar and another extension restrictor, which was called the Bullet Collar. The Bullet Collar never went to market. The Kerr Collar outperformed the Cowboy Collar by 1000 percent. As you see, there is very little use of the Cowboy Collar these days; players who have used them forever mostly wear it. The Cowboy Collar has actually stopped being manufactured. I think that’s due to understanding that during collision that if you keep your head down it’s a problem. The first dynamic neck testing was done to see if the Kerr Collar could absorb forces to the neck or decrease forces to the neck during collision. We proved that the Kerr Collar does that. But the second round of research that was done last year, we wanted to see what it does to the head and neck movement during collision. We got away from just understanding the Kerr Collar as a neck device, but now we understand the Kerr Collar is really a brain and spinal cord protection device for football players. A helmet with the Kerr Collar better protects a football player’s brain and spinal cord than just having a football player wear a helmet. And we want to understand that because this year with all the rule changes that have been made in football and the height of concussion awareness, we still have doubled in the historical average of catastrophic injury in football. Catastrophic injuries average between eight and 13 kids a year, either paralyzed or killed in football. There have been 21 this year. We’re really missing something and I think what we’re missing is protecting the neck area. There has been so much focus on the brain inside the skull, we’re not realizing that the brain is actually tethered to the body by the spinal cord. One of the problems in football is that we’re just looking at the head and not really understanding what happens when football players collide. The neck is not designed to go in the direction it does during a hit. We’re asking the human body to do something in football that it’s not supposed to do. As a chiropractor specializing in the neck, I really understood that we need to start protecting the necks of kids in football, especially in the middle school and high school level. Those are the areas where we see the real catastrophic injuries. Number one, their neck sizes are small and the head size is in the 90-percentile head growth of when you’re 14 or 15 years old.
GMs: Is the Kerr Collar ready to be purchased by organizations such as Pop Warner or even the NFL?
PK: Definitely not at that stage yet. It’s not really for nine or 10 year olds. We’d like to see the use of the Kerr Collar in middle school where the kids are 12 years old and when you really start to see kids growing in size. You start to see the separation of the head from the neck area; necks are getting longer. That’s when you need to start to understand that you are putting a huge helmet on someone and you only have a 14-inch neck. You also have the discrepancies in the middle school and high school level weights of players. You can have a high school player who weighs 250 lbs versus a kid who is 150 lbs. Much of my work deals with preventing an injury before it takes place. The NFL is trying to do the best it can to prevent concussions, but it’s after the fact. I don’t think we’re doing enough before that fact. If a concussion is treated the right way, you can recover from it. You cannot recover from a spinal cord injury. The question is, why are we mandating mouthpieces to protect teeth, but not mandating protection for these young kids’ cervical spine when we know what happens when helmets collide? What gets stuck between the helmet and the torso during collision? The neck. The NFL will come out and say that we’re really pushing safety. What safety are you pushing if you’re putting kids on the football field with naked necks? We need to stop calling paralysis a freak accident. It’s a freak accident if people don’t get paralyzed.
GMs: The NFL has been dealing with the concussion issue for years now, and especially with the new movie starring, Will Smith (Concussion) now out in theatres, obviously millions of eyes will be centered in on the issue. How does the issue that you’re talking about get the same recognition as the concussion problem that has taken 40 years to get to the forefront?
PK: The people that know tremendous amounts about the brain in football are the neuroscientists and researchers. I’m not so sure that there are too many neuroscientists and researchers who have put on a football helmet. Then you have your coaches, who are tremendous, and they’re trying to do the best they can. I don’t think they know enough about the brain. It’s one thing to tell a kid “keep your head up”, but to understand why you’re telling him/her, to fully realize that when those helmets collide, your skull gets driven down towards your neck. There is a gap in the understanding between the neuroscientists and the people who are on the field telling these athletes how to protect themselves. I think as this goes on further, we’re going to understand that you just have a helmet that doesn’t protect the head and neck together as a mechanism of biomechanical movement during collision. When the movie comes out you’ll see the stagnation of change.
My office is fifteen blocks from NFL Headquarters. If they really wanted to know how to make football safer, they could walk right down the street. I can’t make football players completely safe; it’s not possible, but I can make them safer. If they’re truly concerned about making football safer, they should find me.
GMs: Should the players take a bigger stance on safety just as the medical community? Are some players and staff more proactive than others?
PK: Cam Newton never plays without rib protection. Always plays with it. He’s a very smart guy playing with that. You want to talk about someone who is taking a risk every time they take the field, look at Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys. He’s lucky to be alive right now. He’s luck to be walking. Sean Lee went in to make a tackle last year and tore a ligament in his neck. If you watch, the force transfers from his helmet right through his neck, right to his toes. He still doesn’t use neck protection. Luke Kuechly is just the same. Kuechly was diagnosed with a concussion early on in the year. It was not a concussion, it was a spinal cord contusion and they called it a concussion. When you watch it, you’ll see him lose power to his body.
I’ve had, across the board, a very positive reception from the National Trainers’ Athletic Association regarding the Kerr Collar. Some head athletic trainers like Mike Goforth at Virginia Tech had about 15 kids in the Kerr Collar this year. You have other head athletic trainers saying they don’t have any neck injuries. So, basically they are waiting for a neck injury to take place, and then put the Kerr Collar on. When the injury is resolved, they remove the Kerr Collar. Those are the people who don’t understand collisions and they are waiting for injuries to take place. The problem with waiting for a neck injury to take place is that they don’t know how severe the neck injury is going to be. I think it’s just rolling the dice. All players are rolling the dice. There is this air of invincibility. If you look at the history of the Green Bay Packers, I think they’ve lost 13 players over the last 10 years to severe neck injuries. They’ve had more people end their careers with neck injuries than head injuries.
Professional athletes can actually make football safer and start to educate other kids, so that younger kids don’t wake up at age 40 and can’t throw the football around with their children. I think it has to happen. We have some professionals who will not stand up before the season starts and make a statement. No one is stepping up to make it safer.
For more information about Dr. Kerr and the Kerr Collar, please visit his website