Winning should never be the first priority of a football coach.

Just ask Ed Fisher, the ultimate winner.

From 1974 to 1996, Fisher led a high school football dynasty
at South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, Wash., going 197-48 while making
the playoffs in 17 straight seasons.

Before that, he had a decorated gridiron career at Eastern Washington University where he starred at cornerback.

He’s a member of both schools’ halls of fame.

So what does a proven winner like Fisher think should be the foundation of every coach’s philosophy?

Safety.

Fisher, executive director of the National Athletic Equipment
Reconditioning Association (NAERA), said coaches should do their best to protect
players from injury to ensure they’ll live productive lives long after hanging
up their cleats.

It starts with functional equipment, and that’s where Fisher’s group comes in.

NAERA is a nationwide-collection of 23 athletic reconditioners licensed by the National Operation on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) to certify football, lacrosse, baseball and softball helmets.

“Look at it from my standpoint. If they can have the best possible equipment, they will be safer. If they are injured, they will come back quicker,” said Fisher, 62. “The first thing a coach should do is check the equipment.”

NAERA certifies around 1.8 million reconditioned football helmets each year. Most come from high schools, but teams from the NFL, colleges, middle schools and youth organizations are also clients.

Hans Dollhausen, owner of NAERA-member All Sport Services in Cleveland, said helmet prices can reach $300, so schools can save money by getting them reconditioned. On average, it costs about $40 to replenish a helmet.

“They’re all up against budget wars, so they find ways to cut
back,” Dollhausen said. “It’s a lot cheaper to recondition.”

Helmets sent to NAERA-member shops are thoroughly checked for
wear-and-tear.

In some instances, air bladders within the helmets may not
hold air. In others, metal may be exposed or padding may be torn.

Helmet padding also is “susceptible to chemical attack” from products such as hair gel and sunscreen, said Dave Halstead, director of the Sports Biomechanics Impact Research Laboratory at the University of Tennessee.

One of the bigger threats to helmet quality could come from parents.

“The biggest risk is having a well-meaning parent who owns a body shop. He might paint world class corvettes, so he paints [the helmets] with a paint that destroys their integrity,” Halstead said.

During the reconditioning process, helmets are taken apart and inspected, and a random sampling is tested for performance. Once repaired, the helmets are reassembled, sanitized and repainted.

Bob Fawley, owner of Capitol Varsity Sports in Oxford, Ohio, a member of NAERA, said the association tests between 2% to 4% of helmets each year.

The helmets are drop-tested from different heights to gauge their performance. This data is shared among companies and given to NOCSAE for its yearly report.

“We’re part of the NOCSAE standard. That’s the recognized standard for football helmets,” Fawley said.  “The biggest thing is that they go out with a new certification sticker.”

If a company gets strange data, Halstead said personnel will
send the helmets to him for further inspection at Tennessee.

Fisher recommends helmet certification before each season, or
at least every other year, to keep up with the manufacturer’s warranty.

Years of blunt impact can take its toll, so there comes a time when helmets should be replaced instead of reconditioned to guarantee the best performance, Fawley said. The association recently decided not to certify any helmet dated 2002 or older when the new reconditioning season began Sept. 1.

Concussions will always be part of the game, but Fawley said the NAERA is doing its part to confront the problem.

Plus, with the NFL cracking down on players for making illegal hits last season, safety has been in the forefront recently, he said.

“The best advice is to make sure they are in a newer model helmet. The newer the model, the better the product,” Fawley said.

Fawley also said he’s noticed more parents buying helmets for
their young players, which should improve safety at the youth level.

Although coaching and equipment staffs are tasked with providing the best equipment, some of the responsibility falls on players to keep their chinstraps snug and inform coaches if a helmet needs maintenance, Halstead said.

“Make sure it’s fitted properly and make sure it’s maintained,” he said. “They say it’s a contact sport, but football is a collision sport. You wear the helmet with the full expectation that you’re going to use it. If you’re not hitting your head, you’re not playing.”

From day one, a coach should show players and parents that he’s serious about safety, Fisher said.

Fisher, now in his seventh year as NAERA director, said the
association appointed him because it wanted a consumer perspective. He couldn’t help but bring his coaching mentality with him.

“I’ve taken the approach of running it similar to a school or a team,” Fisher said. “I take it very seriously.”

Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Vince Bond Jr. at
vbond@crain.com or 313-446-1653.

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