Professor seeks way to limit concussions on the football field

Stefan Duma loves football. He tracks play calls and watches stand-out plays from games, sometimes on frame-by-frame playback. He examines defensive alignments and blocks, predicting the next move or wondering where a referee’s call went so right or so wrong.

“If you ever watch a game with me, you will never see football the same again,” Duma said.

Whether college or pro football, he also watches games for the helmets worn by the players: Brand, model number, and whether they are securely fastened onto the player’s head.

Tackles and their consequences on the body has been a focal point of Duma’s research for a decade as a professor of biomedical engineering and department head of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. The results have brought media attention from around the world.


From left, Ray Daniel, Steven Rowson, and Stefan Duma test football helmets From left, Ray Daniel, a doctoral candidate in the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences; Steven Rowson, an assistant professor in the school; and Stefan Duma, the Harry C. Wyatt Professor of Engineering and department head of the school, test football helmets to reduce the risk of concussions of players.

Duma’s work is dedicated to realizing better-designed football helmets that can reduce injuries. Skull fractures already are well prevented by helmets, but concussions are Duma’s immediate concern. Long-term, repetitive injuries can dibilitate or eventually kill a player years after play.

Duma uses both on-field real-time sensors installed in the helmets of several dozen players to study injuries and a lab-tested five-star rating system to track and grade commercially sold helmets. The former can help indicate head injuries that require immediate attention. The latter has provided the only independent biomechanical data for consumers to make helmet purchasing decisions, Duma said.


Each Hokie football helmet outfitted by Stefan Duma’s research team includes 12 accelerometers and a wireless transmitter. Each Hokie football helmet outfitted by Stefan Duma’s research team includes 12 accelerometers and a wireless transmitter that can send hit data to a nearby laptop that is monitored during practices and games.

He and Steve Rowson, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and co-principal investigator in the research effort, have been working with Virginia Tech’s football team since 2003. From the athletic side of the research, Gunnar Brolinson, the team’s lead doctor, and Mike Goforth, the team’s lead trainer, have been vital in collecting and studying data on player hits and improve team safety. As of January 2013, more than 150,000 hits have been recorded in detail from hundreds of players at every practice and at every game, Duma said.

The sensors installed in the Hokie player helmets are part of the HIT — short for Head Impact Telemetry — System, an array of accelerators fitted closest to the head. Developed by New Hampshire tech company SIMBEX LLC, the accelerators record the angle of the hit and measure the gravitational pull when a player is struck or his head is violently throttled during a play.

The data is sent wirelessly to a laptop manned by Hokie medical trainers. Medical staff is automatically alerted if a hit reaches concussion territory. After the play in question, “we can talk to the player and see if he is showing signs of a concussion,” said Brett Griesemer, assistant athletic trainer.

Virginia Tech was the “first team in the country and the first team ever to have helmets fitted with sensors that allowed us to measure, in real time and on the field, the head accelerations [of] the players,” Brolinson said. “Nobody ever had done this before. Not NFL. Not college sports.”

Duma and his collaborators have seen their work grown far past Hokie football to include a local grade school to test those ages 6 to 8 as they play, as well as young athletes near Wake Forrest, N.C, where the School of Biomedical Engineering has faculty. A study headed by Duma concerning head impacts among pee-wee players was featured in a special report by former “Dateline NBC” reporter Stone Phillips on an episode of “The View.” Research involving helmets also has moved to ice hockey and baseball.


The HIT System can track all the head impacts a player receives during the course of a season. The HIT System can track all the head impacts a player receives during the course of a season. Each strand marks a spot where a player has received a hit, with longer strands marking spots that were hit repeatedly during a set period.

As of early 2013, the NFL is slow to accept the use of the sensors on the field. ESPN has thrown its support behind Duma’s work. In an August 2012 story, the sports news giant wrote, “The Hokies have built one of the best football programs in the country. But the school’s highly regarded Department of Biomedical Engineering might go down in history as having made a more important contribution to the game.”

Duma and Brolinson know the risk of injury, especially concussions, can never be fully eliminated from the sport. It’s part of the risk player willing take when they step onto the field. That doesn’t mean some instances cannot be lessened and some actions — say, direct helmet to helmet contacts — discouraged.

“Really, the helmet is the last line of defense,” Brolinson said. “Making sure the players are educated about the signs and symptoms of concussions is important. It’s important to teach coaches, players, parents, and students, too.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at 540-231-478.
  • Lynn Nystrom, director of news and external relations for the College of Engineering, contributed to this report.

Video: Helmet study

    young football players

Watch Stefan Duma talk about his research on football helmets in this video.

By the numbers

  • 8: Weight of average football helmet, in pounds
  • 9: Years collecting data on Hokie players
  • 12: Accelerometers per helmet
  • 60+:  Hokie players currently participating in study
  • 155,000: Impacts recorded and studied during entire study
  • 4.9 million: Estimated number of U.S. football players from elementary school to NFL
  • 70: Percentage of all U.S. football players younger than 13

Who is Stefan Duma?

    Stefan Duma tests helmets in his sports biomedical engineering lab at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

Stefan Duma is professor and head of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Science, and interim head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

In addition to his research of sports safety, he has researched injuries suffered by pregnant women in vehicle crashes, the biomechanics of eye injuries, and the biomechanics of blast injuries suffered by the military. He also is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Injury Biomechanics and has received more than $35 million in research funds from federal agencies.

In 2012, he was named the Harry Wyatt Professor in Engineering and was a co-winner of the 2012 Brain Trauma Foundation Award.

Duma in the news

Dozens of news outlets have reported on Virginia Tech’s football helmet research. Here are a few samples.

Share this


Spotlight Archive

Look through previous Spotlight stories

Access the archives