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John’s Journal Top 10 From 2023-24: Guardian Caps Change Football

Park Wolfpack Only Team In Nation To Wear Extra Head Protection In Games

Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2024 - 11:01 AM


Welcome to my annual trip down memory lane, in which I look back on all the John’s Journal stories from the previous school year and select my personal favorites. The 2023-24 year provided a plethora of wonderful topics, which I whittled down to 15 stories. From there I ranked my Top 10 stories in order, with the other five receiving Honorable Mention status.

Today we begin revealing those stories, beginning with the Honorable Mention honorees. I’ll post those five, in no particular order, before beginning the countdown of Top 10 stories from No. 10 to No. 1, in the days ahead.

Today I’m presenting the first Honorable Mention story, about the football team at Park High School and how every member of the football program started wearing protective Guardian Caps at every practice and game last fall. Safety is a concern for football at all levels, and a topic to watch in the coming years.

This story originally appeared on Sept. 18…

The Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center at Boston University is well-known for doing research on brain injuries, including studying the brain tissue of NFL players after they pass away. Earlier this year, the CTE Center announced that 91.7 percent of brains of former NFL players (345 of 376) studied showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a delayed neurodegenerative disorder that research says is caused in part by repeated traumatic brain injuries.

In addition to the research done by the CTE Center, they also receive film of every game played by one high school varsity football team in Minnesota.

Park High School has become a team to watch for reasons beyond the scoreboard. The Wolfpack are believed to be the only football team in the country at any level that’s wearing extra protection in the form of Guardian caps.

Everyone who has watched video from an NFL or college football practice has seen them. Guardian Caps are padded helmet covers that are used to limit the impact of collisions on the brain. They are attached to helmets with snaps and Velcro.

Before the season began, the CTE Center asked Park coach Rick Fryklund to send game films so researchers could study the use of Guardian Caps in game action for the first time.

Tony Plagman, national sales manager with Guardian, confirmed that Park is the only varsity team in the nation that has all players wearing the caps in games.

“There are some teams that have a few guys in them for games, but I believe Park is the only team wearing them on every athlete during games,” he write in an email. “A lot of customers will wear them on their JV players for games, as well as varsity scrimmages.”

If Guardian caps are used in Minnesota varsity football, all players in uniform must wear them.

Every football player in the Park school district, from sixth grade on up, wears a Guardian Cap during every practice and game. The high school team first used them last season during practice, and prior to this season the National Federation of State High School Associations made them legal for games. At Park, Fryklund and activities director Phil Kuemmel took the next logical step in pursuit of safety.

“More and more schools are going to do this and I really believe that the NFL is probably not far away from doing something like this,” Fryklund said.

Melissa Haupt, the certified athletic trainer at Park, said the decision to wear Guardian caps in games makes total sense.

“Rick said, ‘If it reduces our chance of concussions, we're doing less hitting in practice than we are in a game, so why wouldn't we use them?’ ”

Haupt, who has been in the profession for 10 years, estimated that she has probably seen at least 10 concussions per year in football. She looked at records from the 2021 football season (when Park didn’t use Guardian caps at all) and 2022 (when the Wolfpack used them in practice) and saw a 30 percent decrease in concussions.

“Is that due to other things? Is it due to the Guardian caps? I'm not doing in-depth research,” she said. “But we did have a 30 percent decrease in concussions so I think there's something to it for sure.”

Guardian caps are not complicated. They are lightweight, one size fits all helmets, they can help preserve helmets for longer use, and the company that makes them (Guardian Sports) claims that they reduce surface friction during collisions. They are available in several colors; Park’s caps are grey, which is a nice fit with the Wolfpack’s school colors of green and white.

At first glance, they do look odd, enlarging the size of the headgear. But the players at Park, who have now worn them since the first day of practice and through three games so far this season, don’t even think about them.

“I personally don't even notice it on my head,” said Kody Aikens, a sophomore running back and linebacker. “I think it's a good thing, I think it's a good change to the game. And I think that it really helps people out because there have been players able to come and play after they implemented Guardian caps. So I think it's a great idea.”

Indeed, Kuemmel said at least one player came out for football because of Guardian caps, after his parents didn’t allow him to play football previously.

“We're not saying these kids will never get concussions or that they’re completely safe,” Kuemmel said. “It's all the other things, too, like teaching proper tackling techniques. This is just one piece of the puzzle.”

Guardian caps retail for $69.99, although that price can be reduced when purchased in bulk. At Park, approximately $11,000 has been spent on Guardian caps, with all those funds coming from donations, grants and other outside sources.

“We said, ‘If we're going to raise money, let's make sure it goes back to kids and kids’ safety as number one,’ ” Kuemmel said. “I give Rick all the credit so every kid in our program has one.”

Guardian caps don’t change the way the game is officiated; the caps sometimes become partially detached from the helmet, but that’s a quick fix.

“If there's a negative, people worry a little bit about them possibly coming off,” Kuemmel said. “I think we've had about one per game, which is not that different than helmets coming off. It’s no big deal, that has not been an issue.

“We're kind of waiting for what negatives might be out there and right now there are none.”

Fryklund said Guardian Sports has told him that high school teams in Connecticut and Tennessee have worn the caps in games in recent years but not for every game. And at this point it appears that Park is the only team in the nation to wear them all the time.

“I think they 100 percent keep you safer, especially in a fast-paced high school varsity game,” said Park senior Brett Salmonson. “I play running back so I get hit and beat up a lot and I feel like the Guardian cap just gives me an extra layer of protection. That's always nice. I also play free safety on defense and I feel like it adds an extra layer of protection. I feel a lot safer in it.”

Kuemmel said, “We’re not doing it for publicity. We want to let parents and kids know that we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe.

“The parents are on board, the kids are on board, and we’re moving forward.”

--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] or [email protected]

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