CHICAGO -- With youth participation waning and football facing increased concerns over head trauma, the future of the game could well come down to the work being done in a windowless room in a generic suburban Chicago office building.
That's where Riddell, the nation's largest football equipment manufacturer, is testing out design innovations and racing its competitors to build a safer helmet.
"There is a sense of urgency to advance the protective capabilities of football helmets," said Thad Ide, senior vice president of product development for Riddell.
From "Friday Night Lights" to the Super Bowl, football remains the quintessential American sport, with millions of participants and fans. But scientific evidence linking concussions and less-severe head injuries in football players to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, has accelerated the once sleepy science of helmet technology into a gridiron moonshot.
The nexus of that quest is in Illinois, home to Riddell and Schutt, which dominate the half-billion-dollar football helmet market. About 37 percent of NFL players use Schutt helmets, while 60 percent wear Riddell, according to the companies.
Seeking to protect players, and its market share, Riddell is funneling increased resources into research and development, from 3-D scanning technology and engineers scribbling formulas on a whiteboard to a dungeonlike testing lab where helmets are smashed, dropped, frozen and heated to test the limits of their protective capabilities.
Schutt and upstarts like Seattle-based Vicis are similarly engaged in efforts to develop a better helmet as football confronts what some consider to be an existential threat in CTE.
The helmet manufacturers face an uphill battle, said Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and co-founder of Boston University's CTE Center.
"I don't think helmets are going to be the ultimate solution," Cantu said. "To the extent they get better, that's all good, but I don't think they are going to solve the problem."
A degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head, CTE was first diagnosed in boxers nearly a century ago as a condition commonly known as "punch drunk."