Cooling football pads on trial at UF


Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 12:45 a.m.
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Researchers at the University of Florida's College of Medicine have found a way to cool down hot football players on the sidelines: air-conditioned shoulder pads.

SUN FILE PHOTO
The heat has always been a tough opponent for Florida football players. Field temperatures can sometimes reach 120 degrees, especially during summer practices and early season games.
Now researchers at the University of Florida's College of Medicine have found a way to turn the sidelines into a temporary oasis for sweltering players by designing shoulder pads that deliver the luxury of air-conditioning.
"I can't tell you exactly how much heat the system eliminates, but I think every bit helps," said Dr. Nikolaus Gravenstein, UF professor and chairman of anesthesiology and the system's co-developer. "This is a supplement to drinking adequate fluids and getting proper athletic conditioning."
Each year, about 400 Americans die from heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke, which occurs when the body's cooling system fails and body temperature rises to extreme levels that can damage the brain and other organs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Athletes who play or practice in hot, humid environments only increase their risk of heat stroke. Coaches and athletic trainers have been looking closely at the issue of heat-related illness since the deaths in 2001 of Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Kory Stringer and UF freshman player Eraste Autin, who collapsed and died after practice.
A player can lose between five and 15 pounds during a game, and the padding he wears doesn't allow for either quick evaporation or cooling. Wearing a helmet blocks one more route for the body to release heat.
"It's very difficult to cool (football players) externally," Gravenstein said. "Blowing on them with cold air or fans from the outside is made largely ineffective because of the insulation that is their uniform. Because a uniform is foam, it's almost like being inside a Styrofoam cooler. It seemed reasonable (to ask), 'Well, why not just blow cold air under the uniform?' "
Gravenstein created the new pad in partnership with UF medical student Dasia Esener, anesthesiologist Sem Lampotang and Michael Gilmore, a resident in orthopedics and rehabilitation and a former Gators safety.
Gravenstein said that several Florida Gators tried the pads during the game against Florida A&M in The Swamp last Sept. 13, "but that was a night game and not a true test."
The specially designed shoulder pads have a port built into the back so that when players come off the field a trainer or teammate can plug in a hose to circulate cold air through ventilation channels running up and down the interior.
"The air blows through there at something in the neighborhood of eight cubic feet per minute and exchanges the air under the pads several hundred times a minute, so there is a noticeable breeze," Gravenstein said.
Fred Williams, president of Williams Sports Group in Jacksonville, and a longtime custom pad builder, holds an exclusive license to market the technology.
Williams estimated that the new pads would cost $75-$300 each when they go on the market, about the price range for normal shoulder pads.
Further studies with players will help UF researchers better understand how effectively the system reduces heat stress and dehydration and improves the quality of play, Gravenstein said. The group will await final results of those studies before marketing the new pads.
Several college and professional teams have expressed an interest, Gravenstein said. Similar products are in development for baseball umpires and NASCAR drivers, along with a heated version for cold-climate football players.
The cool pads are not the first attempt to protect Florida players from the draining effects of heat. Back in 1965, Dr. Robert Cade tested an early version of Gatorade on Gator players.
Diane Chun can be reached at (352) 374-5041 or chund@gvillesun.com.

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