BOZEMAN — In March, former Montana State All-America defensive lineman Corey Widmer went public with his belief that football and the concussions and head trauma he sustained during his decorated career has caused him years of physical pain and emotional torment.
Widmer, who graduated from Bozeman High in 1987 and eventually played linebacker in the NFL for eight seasons, told 406mtsports.com that the game “destroyed my life.”
Widmer has talked to mothers warning them of football’s risks. He has disavowed the game, going so far as to refuse induction into the Montana Football Hall of Fame as a form of protest.
“I can’t even be associated with it,” Widmer said.
Little was known about football-related concussions during Widmer’s era. That is not the case today. Jeff Choate, now the coach of the Montana State program with which Widmer once starred, has been an advocate for player safety and is aware of the inherent risks for head trauma on the field.
That awareness has filtered into Choate’s third fall camp at MSU. The Bobcats drill shoulder-first tackling. Choate has also served on an advisory board for Atavus, a Seattle-based consulting firm that champions safety and efficiency in tackling.
This year, Choate and his coaching staff have gone even further. The Bobcats have implemented the use of Guardian Caps, which are soft, padded helmet covers designed to reduce impact when heads knock together.
Choate holds a firm belief in the ultimate value of football. His philosophy: If these caps can mitigate concussion risks and therefore sustain and safeguard the game, then it’s a valuable exercise.
“I don’t have scientific evidence that this is going to help prevent anything. But if it prevents one, then whatever we invest in that is worth it,” Choate said after a recent practice.
“I think we have an obligation as coaches to preserve the greatest team game there is. Outside of the military this is the last great proving ground for young men. This is not easy. You’re out here sweating and bleeding, and it’s a gladiatorial sport.
“Not only is it our obligation to know the best practices in terms of techniques, but also, if there’s anything technologically we can use or equipment-wise that we can use that can prevent an injury, we want to do that.”
All of Montana State’s offensive and defensive linemen are wearing the Guardian Caps during August practice. You’ll see other position players sporting them as well, but those are on a selective basis.
Defensive end Derek Marks is required to wear a cap. He said that while it might look awkward fastened to his already large helmet, it isn’t cumbersome, and it seems like an effective approach to safety.
Though he said he and his teammates don’t talk about it, Marks is aware of the evolving conversations surrounding football as it relates to head trauma. He even said he took notice when Widmer’s stream of consciousness was published five months ago.
“They’re just trying to do as much as they can to prevent concussions,” Marks said. “Especially the way I think football is going as a whole. The outside perspective of football … there’s a lot of people who don’t think too highly about the game. I think that’s just one more thing that will protect us in that way.”
According to the Guardian Caps website, the helmet covers reduce the impact of certain collisions by 33 percent.
It has already been a popular investment for many college programs — and beyond. The website contends that the caps are being worn by 80,000 football and lacrosse players around the country.
Injuries will happen. It’s football. But for Choate, the use of the Guardian Caps is just one way to try to keep his players a bit more insulated from harm on the practice field. It’s definitely the most visible way.
“If it was a pill that we were told to take that was approved by the FDA that they said could potentially (help) — and we do encourage our guys to take fish oil because there’s brain armor there, too. We’re into the holistic approach,” Choate said.
“Technique, technology, nutrition and equipment. Every aspect of it, we try to take a look at it and decide what’s going to be the best way for us to keep our kids safe and healthy.
“Certainly, if we feel like it’s going to benefit us we’ll continue to invest in it.”
The Bobcats will conduct their first scrimmage of fall camp Saturday at 2 p.m. at Bobcat Stadium.