This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of ESPNHS magazine.
The next breakthrough in state-of-the-art sports equipment may not come from a high-tech research laboratory or a giant apparel manufacturer -- it might very well be coming from a high school freshman in Southern California.
Braeden Benedict, a 15-year-old football player at Palos Verdes Peninsula (Palos Verdes, Calif.), is developing a helmet attachment that senses when a high-impact collision has occurred, alerting coaches and trainers to check the player for possible trauma.
Benedict believes it could potentially help curb concussions at the high school and youth levels of football.
"That's where the majority of concussions occur," he says, "so I really wanted to target that area."
In the simplest terms, the attachment is a tube filled with a special liquid that is fastened atop the helmet. When the surface area is impacted with enough acceleration, the liquid is pushed through the tube and provides a visual cue that the hit registered as potentially harmful.
Several companies already produce helmets with electronic sensors, but the technology is too expensive to mass-produce for high schools and youth leagues. Benedict's design is mechanical, which means it would be more affordable.
The inspiration for Benedict's invention came when a teammate was knocked off-kilter by a hit during a game in eighth grade. The teammate continued playing, only to be plagued by headaches later in the week. He was eventually diagnosed with a concussion.
"We heard about the diagnosis, and I'm thinking, 'This happened over a week ago,'" Benedict says. "It turns out he didn't know, and the coaches didn't realize it at the time. So the idea was, if you can detect it right away, you're not going to keep playing and make it worse."
Both of Benedict's parents are engineers, so tinkering is one of his natural talents. After spending the summer working on a prototype, he competed in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and won first prize at the final event. His reward was a cool $25,000 -- and a desire to continue his research. He also shared his prototype with the president at this year's White House Science Fair.
While Benedict has never had a concussion, he played on the freshman football team this past fall and watched as another teammate suffered an undiagnosed concussion. So his coaches and teammates understand what he's trying to accomplish and support his research.
"Braeden is a brilliant young man," says Palos Verdes Peninsula freshman football coach Doug Esparza. "He's not the biggest guy on the team or anything like that, but he works hard and he's obviously very bright. Everybody was excited for him when he won the award."
There is still a lot of testing and development to be done before Benedict's invention is ready to hit the market, but he's hopeful. And he's excited by the idea of playing a football game two or three years down the road and seeing all the players wearing his attachment on their helmets.
"That would be really cool," he says, "because it's something you've done and it's out in the real world. And it could really help."