Aug. 17, 2001 -- Since the early days of the space race, astronauts have been protected from the harsh environments of the cosmos by the specially designed material used in their space suits. Now, earth-bound football players are getting the same kind of protection from those materials developed nearly 30 years ago.
During summer training, players exercise under an August sun that can raise a football field's surface temperatures up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. And the heat really piles on as players work out while wearing weighty — and heat-retaining — polyurethane shoulder pads and foam-filled helmets.
And the recent tragic death of Minnesota Viking offensive tackle Korey Stringer is just the latest example of how heat can kill players on the field. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, over 100 football players have died from heat stroke since 1960.
But Mark Monica, CEO of Creative Football Concepts Inc. in Madison, N.J., believes that his company can help alleviate the possibility of heat-related injuries by creating better protective equipment using NASA's advanced materials.
"The technology exists," says Monica. "But football equipment is not evolving with the technology."
At the heart of the company's Radiant Heat Deflection System (RHDS) is aluminized polyester, a material originally engineered by NASA for the space shuttle. This aluminized material can be inserted into helmets, shoulder pads, and other protective gear to reflect over 90 percent of the heat generated from the sun's rays.
The RHDS technology also uses a layer of air within the material to ensure that no heat generated by the sun on the material is transferred to the skin by conduction. A material's resistance to such heat conduction is also referred to as its emissivity factor. "The lower the emissivity, the better the radiant barrier," says Monica.
Company tests indicate that RHDS technology can indeed block heat effectively. After placing two similar helmets — one with RHDS shielding, one without — under two heat lamps for an hour, the temperature inside the RHDS-equipped helment was 19 degrees cooler than the other.
Weaving Water In
While the shielding may help reflect sun-generated heat, Monica notes that players can still suffer heatstroke from the body heat trapped by the equipment. To combat internal heat build-up and maximize RHDS's effectiveness, Monica suggests players should wear undergarments made of another advanced material called Hydroweave.
Hydroweave, developed by AquaTex Industries in Huntville, Ala., is a fabric consisting of a water-absorbing fiber, sandwiched between two layers of micro-porous material. The fabric is activated by soaking in cold water for five minutes and then wrung dry. The trace amounts of water in the middle layer act as a coolant and draw heat away from the wearer's skin.
Creative Football Concepts' Monica says that several NFL teams have already tried out the space-age football gear.
He said incorporating the material adds $15 to the price of a regular helmet and $30 to the price of shoulder pads. His company has delivered equipment to teams such as the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and the St. Louis Rams. And some of the players have reacted favorably to the new equipment.
Last summer, Ryan Tucker, a 310-pound lineman for the St. Louis Rams, was on the verge of getting cut from the team because of chronic heat exhaustion. As a last measure, the team's equipment manager gave Tucker a helmet and shoulder pads with the RHDS material to wear. He responded immediately and no longer had to leave the field from heat exhaustion.
Now Tucker won't go on the field without the special gear, and the equipment manager is ordering more for the Rams' other linemen.
Monica says he cannot be sure that this technology would have saved Korey Stringer, but he believes that football coaches and equipment managers need to educate themselves about cutting edge technologies that can alleviate oppressive heat on the field. ABCNEWS' Herran Bekele contributed to this story.