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Westlake Youth Football is a pioneer in safety for flag football
by Kristen Hampshire, Westlake Bay Village Observer
Leah Pettigrew’s fourth-grade son lives for sports.
“Every day, he has a ball in his hand,” says the Westlake mother, who has seen her fair share of playful jabs during games and flat-out falls. “There is nothing worse than when a game stops for a kid who hit the ground with some sort of head trauma.”
For this reason, their family has always played it safe and equipped their son with a protective hard-shell headband for playing flag football and other sports. Sure, tackle players are fully equipped, but usually flag football teammates do not wear helmets.
That’s no longer the case for the Westlake Youth Football Association, whose president, Chad Hanobik, introduced soft shell helmets by Gamebreaker this season. He sourced 14 samples to test and ultimately partnered with Gamebreaker.
“The great thing about these helmets is they are rated in the Top 5 of all soft shells, they are machine washable and they lace up in the back,” Hanobik says.
This is important because both boys and girls play flag football, and anyone with long hair (boy or girl) can easily sport a ponytail without sacrificing the soft shell’s integrity or performance.
Why soft shells for flag football?
“Kids are bigger, stronger and faster than ever,” Hanobik says, adding that a flag football field is 33 yards wide and 40 yards long. “They are flying around, and we want to make it’s as safe of an experience as possible.”
This year, the association rolled out soft shells for grades 3 to 6.
All told, the association has 17 flag teams, kindergarten through sixth grades. There are also rookie tackle teams, a hybrid between flag and tackle – a bridge for players advancing in age and skill. Beginning in fifth grade, the association offers full 11-on-11 tackle football for players who choose to transition from flag completely to prepare for the Westlake 7th and 8th grade teams.
Since Hanobik became association president two years ago, he has helped grow the league from five teams to its current capacity. It is aligned with USA Football, which offers a training certification program for all coaches. Proudly, he notes that three teams are undefeated and the league, overall, wins more than 85 percent of games.
But no one wins when safety is at stake.
That’s why Hanobik and coaches are taking the utmost precaution by introducing soft shells. They hope this addition to the custom uniforms will inspire other youth football associations and leagues to adopt the lightweight helmets. (They weigh 1 pound, 5 ounces.)
“When you have any collision, you want some energy absorption to protect the skull and prevent head injury,” Hanobik explains, noting that the Gamebreaker soft shells come with mouth guards. “The most vulnerable parts are the crown, the front and base of the skull. These helmets do a great job of having padding in those areas, and the material is breathable.”
After initial practices and moving into the season, Hanobik says, “It gives the kids more confidence that they can safely play flag football. It eases the concerns of parents, and the kids feel special and protected.”
Pettigrew adds, “The kids are young, but they’re growing and getting faster. Even though it’s flag football, injuries can still occur. If you can reduce those and keep kids safer, why not?”