Courtesy of Nina Lindberg

As the Yale football team prepares for its 147th season in the fall, the Bulldogs are sporting new gear to help get their heads in the game.

The Elis, who began spring training in March and concluded it last week, will return to competition in September. In the meantime, Yale has stayed busy: The Bulldogs locked in their class of 2023, ran a youth clinic-turned-annual-tradition in New Haven for local high school students and donned a new set of helmets — custom designed for each player to help minimize impact in a sport where concussion safety has become paramount. With the upgrade, Yale became the first school in the Football Championship Subdivision whose players are all equipped in helmets fit with customized technology from helmet-maker Riddell, which outfits most professional football players.

“Being able to wear the new helmets this spring has been a great experience for the team,” captain and wide receiver JP Shohfi ’20 said. “They fit as well as a helmet possibly could, so it’s nice to feel as comfortable and protected as possible on the field. It’s exciting to know that we have the best technology in the sport and the safest equipment possible to help us perform. I think the players can already feel a difference in the helmets.”

Over a two-day period in early March, each player made a brief stop at the Ray Tompkins House to be fitted for their “Precision-Fit” helmets. There, a representative from Riddell, which has had a longtime relationship with the Elis, performed a five-minute fitting. After selecting a preferred facemask, each player donned a head cover that allowed the staffer to measure their head and chin shape from a multitude of angles. Once the measurements were completed, each player provided a signature that would be etched into the inside of their helmet, another personalized feature.

The measurements allowed the Riddell representatives to 3D print the inside of the helmets to create seven resin pads with a unique pattern that flexes and bends to the exact specifications of the player’s head, reducing break-in time and ensuring a proper fit.

The switch to Precision-Fit helmets — made possible by a donation from Jerry Kenney ’63 — comes as both professional and collegiate football leagues have grappled with how to reduce head injuries and ensure player safety.

The Ivy League has been one of the nation’s most proactive conferences, opting in 2016 to move up kickoffs by five yards and increase the area eligible for touchbacks in the hopes of decreasing direct impact. An October 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association affirmed its efficacy: Concussion rates among Ivy League football teams decreased after the new kickoff rule was implemented.

In a press release, head coach Tony Reno said that the custom-fitted helmets would further improve student-athlete safety.

“The focus at Yale is always on our relationships with our players and how we can make their experience better on and off the field,” Reno said in the statement. “In college football there are numerous items football programs can make a priority. We feel the experience and safety of our players is the most important. This partnership makes Yale Football the leader in FCS player safety.”

Beyond improving safety, the new helmets also seek to reduce the amount of botched snaps. The helmets do not rely on air in the cushioning, so refitting is limited to readjusting the chinstrap and face mask clip.

The purpose of the new helmets is to induce a “perfect fit,” which will eliminate both the need to break-in the padding inside as well as the “lag time” that occurred when the helmet would slip and obscure the player’s vision for a short period of time.

“The new helmet has been feeling great,” defensive lineman Spencer Matthaei ’20 said. “It didn’t take long at all to break it in, and it fits the same every day. That’s because it doesn’t use air to inflate the pads so we never have to worry about it loosening up and getting it refit. We’re lucky to have the chance to wear such comfortable and protective helmets.”

The helmets were put into action during last week’s “One New Haven” event, which included an internal scrimmage at Hillhouse High School’s Bowen Field. Organized by Yale football and local police departments, the event is a clinic for youth players. The Bulldogs next take the field at the Yale Bowl when Team 147 returns for the 2019–20 school year.

Riddell was established in 1929.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu

Cristofer Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu