Guardian Caps a fit for Park Wolfpack

By John Molene
Posted 9/21/23

There was at least one fan who didn’t get the memo as the Park Wolfpack came out to do battle with East Ridge in the Sept. 5 football season opener.

“What the heck are those things …

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Guardian Caps a fit for Park Wolfpack


There was at least one fan who didn’t get the memo as the Park Wolfpack came out to do battle with East Ridge in the Sept. 5 football season opener.

“What the heck are those things on their heads,” the fan asked.

“They’re new protective gear to help the players avoid head injuries,” he was told. “Oh, OK then,” he responded.

That seems to be the consensus opinion on Park’s new headgear. And while they may not be the prettiest piece of football gear, if they can prevent one head injury, most feel they’re worth it.

“At first, like everyone, I wasn’t too sure what they’re going to do in a game,” said Park High senior wide receiver/defensive back Adam Tait. “But I like them a lot now. And I think a lot of people don’t really mind them because you don’t really notice them when you’re in the game trying to go through the plays and stuff.”

The headgear is known as helmet covers. The brand Park uses are Guardian Caps and that’s how players and coaches refer to them.

The Park High Wolfpack are believed to be the first team in Minnesota, and one of a select few nationally, to wear the covers in a game. Park players worn the covers last year in practice, but this year got the go-ahead to wear them in games.

“We did notice a significant trend in our data for the better, in terms of a reduction in player safety injuries, head injuries, concussions specifically,” said Park High head football coach Rick Fryklund. “We did also implement some new tackling methodology that year, so we know that alone is not what caused us to have less injuries.

“We know, the analogy in Covid was the Swiss cheese approach, right, like there’s holes in every type of preventive measure, safety measure, usually you put enough of them on top of each other you should be able to catch a lot of the things that could happen,” Fryklund continued. “So, we did notice data that said it was more safe and we thought they were safe, and the kids told me they didn’t really even notice them.”  

The caps were already in Fryklund’s mind even before he was hired to run the Park football program in 2019. Fryklund had heard some college teams were using them and was intrigued.

“I read up on some information and thought it was just a good way to keep players safer,” said Fryklund. And even though it was a fairly new product at the time, looking at the research, there wasn’t of lot of studies but antidotally the concept of how there is a soft shell to adsorb an impact and then a hard shell to prevent skull fractures made sense to me.

“What we’re finding out is that some of the evolving research on concussions finds there could be a correlation, not causation to be very clear, between what they call sub-concussive blows so just the impacts added up over time could be one of the reasons that some athletes get a concussion anyway. And when you hear about a product that can reduce impact in a lab by up to 30 percent that definitely gives me pause.”

The helmet covers worn by Park made their game debut in the Wolfpack’s season opener against East Ridge at TCO Stadium. After a little bit of adjustment from players, coaches, parents and fans -- seem to have found a home with the Wolfpack.

Little by little, more football teams on all levels of play, from youth leagues to the NFL, have been adopting the Guardian Caps, especially in practices. Park, however, is thought to be the first high school team in Minnesota to use the protective caps in a game.

The Guardian Caps have been allowed in practices for some time but the NFHS and the Minnesota State High School League officials gave their blessing for them to be used in games just prior this season. After doing his due diligence research, and getting the go-ahead from the powers that be, Park coach Frylund didn’t just jump on the bandwagon, he led it.

Fryklund and Athletic Director Phil Kuemmel sought and got approval for the Wolfpack to wear the caps in games from the MSHSL, the National Federation of State High School Associations, state high school referees and district decision makers. There have been doubters, Fryklund acknowledged.

“If this keeps kids safer, this keeps this game safer, I don’t mind taking the flak,” said Fryklund.

NFL linemen and linebackers first started wearing the caps during last season training camps. This year running backs have started wearing them in practice whenever players go full contact. In a recent TV appearance, NFL executive Jeff Miller, who oversees player health and safety, suggested the Guardian Caps could debut in actual games in the near future.

“The NFL did a study and they were – in their own words -- shocked by how effective it was at reducing injuries,” said Fryklund.

The Guardian Caps “exceeded expectations” after an initial 2022 approval, an NFL spokesman said. The caps are now estimated is use by 275-plus colleges, 3,000-plus high schools, 500-plus youth programs and all 32 NFL teams. 

But it was the Park Wolfpack, who broke through to using the caps in a game.

Football helmets are typically made of a molded polycarbonate hard plastic shell with a thick padded lining consisting of materials such as polyurethane, polypropylene or vinyl nitrile to absorb the energy and minimize the chance of head injuries. The Guardian Caps just take that injury prevention goal one step further.

The padding on the Guardian Caps is believed to decrease the impact of a helmet’s hard exterior. According to NFL data, the caps decreased concussions by more than 50 last season. The caps are designed to reduce football impacts by a third. 

The biggest benefits of the caps is obviously to minimize the risk of head impacts and injuries. And when players are tackling and crashing into each other at high rates of speed and impact, every ounce of prevention is a plus.

“The data’s there,” said Kuemmel. “They definitely keep players safer. Not 100 percent safe and not an end-all and be-all – you’ll never get a concussion. You still have to tackle correctly; you still have to do all the right things. But there really wasn’t a reason not to wear them, except the look a little goofy. … we certainly wouldn’t use that as a reason not to wear them.”

Park High athletic trainer Mel Haupt says she’s a fan of the Guardian Caps.

“There’s some good studies that show they help reduce concussions,” said Haupt.

Park had nine minor or major head injuries last football season, 14 the year before that, Haupt said. “Why wouldn’t you try and make it safer, especially with the trend now? The trend in football for a while has been less kids are playing; parents don’t want their kids to play because it’s dangerous. So, if we can make the game safer then absolutely.”

“The research that’s out there is showing a 33 percent less risk of concussion,” Haupt added.   

The Guardian Caps go for $75 each on Amazon, but they didn’t cost Park High School or the South Washington County school district anything. A combination of fund raiser efforts, including a $5,000 gift from the St. Paul Park Lions Club and individuals provided the funds to buy a cap for each Park 10th, 11th and 12th grade player.

Participation in certain youth sports programs such as football, has been declining in recent years, in part because a growing awareness of the chances for concussions and other serious injuries.

“I think they’re a great form of getting more kids that didn’t want to play football back into it, for the fact that they feel more safe from concussions,” said Park junior wide receiver/defensive back Dom Batts. “At first people were a little skeptical on how they would look in games with the jerseys. I think once everyone got out there and saw the full get-up it looked pretty good.”