The Cony High football team has started wearing Guardian Caps during practices this season. The team has 40 of the caps, worn primarily by linemen, linebackers and running backs. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

They’ve been called a helmet for the helmet, a pillow, a cushion.

Their puffy appearance is often ridiculed, but there is no denying that Guardian Caps – a spongy, lightweight layer of protection fastened to the exterior of helmets – are becoming a more common sight on football fields from the NFL to high schools and the youth level.

This fall, at least two Maine high school teams – Cony High in Augusta and Mt. Blue in Farmington – have started using Guardian Caps in practices. They join Leavitt Area High in Turner, which has worn them in practices since 2018.

“It’s only our first year wearing them in practices, but so far, I think everyone has really embraced them,” said Cony Coach B.L. Lippert. “It looks a little funny, but that’s not our concern. Anything we can do to minimize the likelihood of concussions, we want to pursue it.”

The seven-ounce Guardian Caps are the latest tool in the sport’s effort to mitigate brain injuries. Concerns about concussions played a factor in a 20 percent decline in high school football participation in Maine from 2009 to 2018, the most recent year for available data. Nationally, high school football participation dropped by nearly 10 percent during the same time period.

Players say they they feel more secure wearing the added protection.


“I think it is a game-changer,” said Leavitt senior Beau Mayo, a linebacker and offensive guard. “It just gives me extra cushion. When you get hit in the game, it’s kind of a ringer and with these on in practice we just don’t feel it as much.”

His teammate, junior tailback Maddox Demers said: “It does look like a pillow and that’s how I like to think about it. It’s just a pillow for your head. Very comfortable. I like using it.”

“If the other guy has it on,” Demers added, “it’s even better because it’s just like two cushions hitting each other.”

Whether Guardian Caps reduce the risk of concussions, however, is debatable. Research, while showing some promising results, has been limited. Some high school coaches say that there have been fewer concussions among players wearing them in practice. The manufacturer claims that the caps reduce the force of impact of blows to the head, but makes it clear, perhaps out of liability concerns, that the caps “do not reduce or prevent concussions.”

The football team at Leavitt Area High in Turner has been using Guardian Caps at practices since 2018. Coach Mike Hathaway says, “It’s definitely clear we have way fewer concussions in practice than we’ve had in the past.” Elliott Shields photo

Add-on helmet layers have been around for more than 10 years, but Guardian Caps took on a higher profile this summer when the NFL mandated that offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends use them for the first several weeks of preseason practices. The league determined players in those positions took the most blows to the helmet, especially in the early part of training camp.

Georgia-based Guardian Sports is the industry leader in manufacturing protective add-on padding for helmets. The company says its caps are used by more than 200 colleges, 2,000 high schools and 500 youth programs. In Maine, Colby College and the Portland Youth Football League also use Guardian Caps.


Guardian Sports claims that the caps reduce the force of impact by 10 percent if worn by one player in a head-to-head collision and by 33 percent if worn by both players. Research conducted by the NFL showed the caps – a slightly larger version weighing 12 ounces – also reduced the force of impact by 10 percent with one player wearing the caps and by 20 percent when worn by both.

But Guardian Sports cautions on its website that “Guardian Caps do not reduce or prevent concussions and have never claimed to do so. No helmet, practice apparatus, or helmet pad can prevent or eliminate the risk of concussions or other serious head injuries while playing sports. … Guardian has always stood by the fact that Guardian Caps reduce the impact of hits and that its use should be one piece of the puzzle to an overall safety strategy to reduce contact.

“Researchers have not reached an agreement on how the results of impact absorption tests relate to concussions. No conclusions about a reduction of risk or severity of concussive injury should be drawn from impact absorption tests.”

In September, the NFL reported more than a 50 percent reduction in concussions among players required to wear Guardian Caps this summer compared to the previous three-year period.

This summer, the NFL mandated that offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends wear Guardian Caps for the first several weeks of preseason practices. The league reported more than a 50 percent reduction in concussions among players required to wear the caps compared to the previous 3-year period. Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Dr. Kristy Arbogast, the co-scientific director at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, has served for the past eight years as a consultant with the NFL Players Association on safety and health issues. She was part of the team that evaluated laboratory tests on Guardian Caps made specifically for the NFL.

“I think we’ve shown at the professional level – and it’s important to note that the add-ons we evaluated were designed for professional, elite football – we were confident that the laboratory data was compelling enough that we were recommending them to be used, particularly for linemen,” Arbogast said.


In a 2017 survey conducted by Winthrop University in South Carolina, high school and youth teams that used Guardian Caps reported a 40 percent reduction in concussions. Yet study co-author Seth Jenny pointed out that coaches or athletic directors participating in the survey cited other concussion-prevention strategies, such as changes in tackling techniques and improved education related to head injuries in football.

“With caution, we found that, when you look at these coaches’ recollections of before and after Guardian Caps, they see this reduction, but there are certainly other factors involved,” said Jenny, now a professor for the Department of Exercise Science and Athletic Training at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. “You have to take some of those other aspects into account as well.”

More than 16 percent of the survey participants did not recommend the use of Guardian Caps, citing concerns such as helmet warranty worries, helmet bulkiness, product malfunctions and expense.


Guardian Caps for high school players typically retail for $64.95, though teams are able to get discounts if they buy them in bulk.

Cony High spent $1,000 from its athletic department budget to buy 40 of the caps for $25 each. But with 63 players on the roster, there are not enough for everyone. The caps are worn primarily by linemen, linebackers and running backs. The leftover caps are optional for quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs.


Leavitt also has has more than 60 players on its roster, but just 36 Guardian Caps. They are used by linemen and other players most likely to sustain blows to the head, said Coach Mike Hathaway.

Hathaway said the decision to buy the Guardian Caps, which cost $1,000 and were paid for by the football program’s booster group, was a direct result of concussion concerns.

“When we did it five years ago, that was right in the midst of football’s-not-that-safe-with-concussions,” Hathaway said. “We looked at, what are things we can do to make this safer so kids want to play and parents will still want their kids to play? So things like Guardian Caps and reducing contact in practice started. Then over time you look at how effective they are and it’s definitely clear we have way fewer concussions in practice than we’ve had in the past.”

Leavitt Area High football players have been using Guardian Caps in practice since 2018.  The team purchased 36 caps at a cost of $1,000, paid for by the football program’s booster group. Steve Craig photo

Matt Friedman, the first-year head coach at Mt. Blue High, was concerned about how many team members had suffered concussions last fall when he was an assistant coach. The school already had 10 Guardian Caps. Friedman purchased 40 more at $50 per cap. Half of the cost was paid by the school, half with money from the football team’s fundraising budget.

“I wanted to explore every way to eliminate (concussions). Guardian claims if both players are wearing a cap, you can reduce the concussive force by 33 percent,” Friedman said. “Whether that’s verifiable or not, there has to be some level of protection.

“I still firmly believe it’s more the teaching of better tackling techniques that will be the biggest difference-maker,” Friedman added. “But if there’s something that might help a little bit I’m definitely willing to do it.”


With 54 players on the roster, almost every Mt. Blue player wears a cap at each practice.

Mt. Blue football suffered one concussion through late September, Friedman said, that coming in a junior varsity game five weeks into the season.

Awareness about the dangers of head injuries in high school football has played a role in a reduction of concussions.

From 2010-16, one quarter of all high school football injuries were concussions, peaking at 27.6 percent of all injuries in 2016, according to the national High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study. But in the three years that followed, fewer than one-fifth of all injuries were concussions.

When compared to national participation data, the study’s finding showed that one in every 10.37 high school football players suffered a concussion in the two-year period from 2017-18, compared to one in every 7.96 high school players from 2012-16.

Bob Colgate, director of sports and sports medicine for the National Federation of State High School Associations, cites several reasons for the decline in concussion rates.


“Everyone who has a vested interest in this has ramped up educational efforts and is doing everything we can,” Colgate said. “Our helmet manufacturers have tried to make better helmets. On the practice side, a lot of states have limited contact and that’s had a huge impact. Education has been key with this. Are we completely there yet? No. There’s always more to be done.”

Concussion education is now a part of every player’s, coach’s and parent’s introduction to athletic competition.

Cony High linemen run a drill wearing Guardian Caps during a September practice. The school’s athletic department purchased 40 of the caps for $1,000. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

State legislatures across the country – including Maine’s in 2012 – have enacted return-to-play laws that include protocols to help ensure detection of concussions, prompt removal if a concussion is suspected and a multi-day return-to-play process.

The Maine Principals’ Association, the agency that oversees high school sports in the state, has set guidelines to help mitigate the risk of injuries in football. Practices cannot have more than 30 minutes of full contact. Coaches also are required to watch the “Concussion in Sport” video produced by the national federation.


Coaches whose teams don’t use Guardian Caps often cite cost as a deterrent, as well as limited data available to support use of the caps. Many coaches also point out that they have significantly reduced hitting and tackling during practices compared to 10 and even five years ago.


“I looked up the data, and the data doesn’t suggest it impacts either way,” said Oxford Hills Coach Mark Soehren. “And, it’s expensive.”

Thornton Academy Coach Kevin Kezal said, “If they told us we had to wear them in games because it might benefit kids, we’d have them. But practice-wise we don’t hit enough to need them. We’re never going to tackle a kid to the ground anymore. You see the pros using them. The pros are going full pads and they bang every day. If we were going to do that in practice I would definitely think about wearing them but we don’t do any hitting.”

Players also have dissenting opinions. At Leavitt, where there are only enough Guardian Caps to outfit slightly more than half the team, many of of the skill players do not wear them.

“The Guardian Cap, it’s just not my thing. It feels weird having it on for me,” said Will Keach, a junior who plays slot receiver, running back and outside linebacker. “It feels a little hotter in my helmet. I don’t get as much air flow. … I just feel, in a game I’m not going to have that on so I want to get the game feel in practice.”

The Cony High football team has started wearing Guardian Caps during practices this season. “It looks a little funny, but that’s not our concern,” said Cony Coach B.L. Lippert. “Anything we can do to minimize the likelihood of concussions, we want to pursue it.” Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

But at Cony High, players embraced Guardian Caps almost immediately. Running back Eli Klaiber said there’s no real feeling of extra weight on his head when wearing a cap, and the extra padding, he added, makes the players feel more protected on the field.

Getting used to the Guardian Caps, Klaiber said, was barely a process at all. At this point, the senior can barely tell he’s even wearing it during practices, and on the few occasions he does notice a difference – those harder head-to-head hits – he can feel the cap softening the blow.


“It depends on the kind of hit, but usually, it feels the exact same as if I just had my normal helmet on,” Klaiber said. “If you go head to head, like if I lower my shoulder on someone, then it does feel a bit different, but that’s a good thing because it’s softer.”

Cony and Leavitt wore the caps when the two teams scrimmaged during the preseason. Cony’s Jaden Geyer said his cap made a positive difference during the scrimmage, where the intensity was higher than that of a normal practice.

“It was great because they were wearing them also, so it felt a lot safer,” said Geyer, a senior offensive and defensive lineman. “When we’d bump into them, I would get that feeling of, ‘Oh, I have that extra bit of protection on my head.’ ”

So far there have no discussions regarding whether Guardian Caps should be implemented statewide, according to Joel Stoneton, the athletic director at Winthrop High School and a member of the MPA’s Football Committee.

Guardian Caps have not been used in professional or college games, and it’s unclear if they have been worn during high school competition – even though the National Federation of State High School Associations has allowed the use of protective helmet covers in games since 2012, according to Colgate.

“I can’t tell you whether (teams are) using them in games,” Colgate said. “We probably had more inquiries (since) August about using them in practice and could it be used in games than we’ve ever had.”


Hathaway, the Leavitt coach, said teams are likely reluctant to use Guardian Caps during games because the covering obscures the team logo and, at least in Maine, only a few teams have them for practice.

“Probably the look of it, honestly, is one thing keeping them from being used in games,” Hathaway said. “Not a lot of kids would be super fired up about putting them on on game day.”

But when it comes to practice, many players are glad to wear them.

Mayo, the Leavitt senior, said he’s suffered three concussions while playing football. Two came prior to high school “when we didn’t even know what (Guardian Caps) were,” and one happened in a game last season.

Mayo said his mother is also a fan of Guardian Caps.

“She said one more concussion and I’m done. We can’t risk that,” Mayo said. “A few of the freshmen have asked, ‘What are these? What are they for?’ And we’re just like, ‘Wear one. Just wear one.’ All of the linemen wear them because in practice we get after it.”

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