Football team gets extra layer of help from Iowa State
By BRANDON HURLEY
Sometimes, simplicity works best.
A thin, yet flexible piece of plastic could be the saving grace for a football season unlike any other, and it took less than two weeks to provide protection for hundreds.
The Greene County High School football program joined 20 other central Iowa schools in their quest for containment, connecting a customized helmet shield in an effort to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The clear helmet shields — or “Cyclone Shields,” as they’ve been called — were created as a result of an Iowa State University partnership, bringing two of the state school’s most popular institutions together. ISU’s athletic department and engineering school joined forces to offer a helping hand in a time of need.
The project arrived just in time.
ISU assistant director of equipment operations, Michael Dryer, a South Hamilton graduate and former high school football player himself, was one of the brains behind the face shield project, which became available to high schools around the state a few weeks ago.
Iowa’s hopes for a successful football season takes its biggest leap of faith to date, as teams throughout the state open week one on Friday. Greene County travels to Perry in hopes of securing the Cowbell for the third straight year.
Dryer admits they know there’s no clear cut way to eliminate the spread of COVID-19, especially on the gridiron, but it’s worth the attempt.
As a former high school footballer, he understands the passion and wants players to be as safe as can be. Dryer graduated from South Hamilton in 2012 and is now in his third full season as the assistant of ISU equipment operations. He grasps how much is riding on this fall as both the Big 12 and the entire state of Iowa try to push forward during a pandemic. The helmet shield, which is zip-tied into place on the bottom rung of the face mask, is just one step toward a return to normalcy.
“The goal is to have something that’s inside the helmet that the players would barely notice but it’s still going to keep them safe,” Dryer said. “Obviously, anything we put in the helmet isn’t going to prevent the spread, but at least there’s something covering the mouth.”
The plastic shield isn’t a perfect solution, but it offers a better option for safety than trotting athletes onto the field unprotected with no way to stop sweat and air droplets from transferring to and from players.
Dryer and his colleagues wanted to at least give it a go, hoping they’d found a way to improve player safety.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Dryer said. “As equipment managers, we are here to protect the athletes. So once we were able to take care of our own (players at ISU), we thought, ‘Let’s reach out to the local high schools and help them out.’
“If there is something that makes parents feel safer and makes the players feel safer, if that’s what it takes to play football, we’re all in.”
The equipment staff envisioned the idea in early August, but needed an entity that could actually produce the shield. That’s when Iowa State’s prestigious engineering school stepped in.
Matt Frank, ISU industrial and manufacturing systems engineering professor of sustainable design and manufacturing, became the point person and drove it to completion.
Frank knew the project didn’t allow for much time. Highly contagious, COVID-19 has killed more than 176,600 Americans, and with the start of the football season quickly approaching, time was of the utmost importance.
“It had to be fast, that was the sense of urgency we had,” Frank said. “We had been contacted, and we were told practices were starting but they didn’t have a solution (to help prevent spread).”
After the two groups kicked around several different ideas and types of shields, they settled on LEXAN polycarbonate. The shields are only 10 thousandth of an inch thick, but strong enough to hold their shape, with a significant amount of give as well.
“We wanted something that would be simple, something installed and replaced quickly,” Frank said. “It also needed to work with existing equipment.”
There were some structural provisions as well, Frank said. ISU wanted to keep the helmet intact, but also make it so it’s easily attached and removed. But in doing so, the sleek look of ISU’s helmets were not to be comprised.
“They wanted minimal attachment points,” Frank said. “They also didn’t want it connected to high impact spots.”
Which is how they came up with a compromise: making small, but sturdy holes on the edge of the shield for zip ties that can latch onto the sides of a face mask.
“Whatever comes out of the player’s mouth is going to hit that shield and go down instead of going out towards another player,” Dryer said. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted something light, something durable and something clear that you could see out of. Something that would snap back into place if someone’s hands were able to get into the face mask.”
Each high school team who inquired about getting their hands on Cyclone Shields — including Greene County, Nevada, Boone, Ames, South Hamilton, Roland-Story, Gilbert, Des Moines North and Des Moines Roosevelt — was given a pack of 72, roughly enough for each player to have two.
“It’s special when what you do has a direct impact on people rather than ending up on a library shelf,” Frank said. “We want to make sure that the message is out there that anyone can do this. We wrote down the designs, made videos, listed the supplier. Every detail is available in a public folder, anyone in the country can access it.”
One of the biggest concerns isn’t how effective the shield will be, but if it will obstruct vision if it fogs up from heavy breathing.
Temperature’s for Friday’s game against Perry are predicted to be near 90 degrees at kickoff. Sweat and heat will likely come into play, though Frank said it shouldn’t have too much of an effect. ISU engineers took Iowa’s extreme weather into account when constructing the piece, testing summer conditions as well as considering the possibility of snow storms.
Greene County football players have adjusted nicely to the new equipment. It’s hardly even noticeable, the players said, though Greene County head coach Caden Duncan does admit they tend to complain about the heat factor on especially warm days. Other than that, anything Greene County can do to play football they’ll do it, Duncan said.
“We are trying to decrease the amount of respiratory droplets and things like that,” the second-year coach said. “We are trying to do every little bit we can and we feel like we’re doing quite a bit, probably just as much or more than the majority of schools.
“We want to do everything we can to improve our chances of having the season.”