A professor at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, Duma leads a team that has developed the first safety ratings for football helmets, potentially an invaluable advance in this era of terrifying collisions, subsequent concussions and long-term health concerns.
Indeed, thanks to cooperation from Hokies' coaches, medical staff and players, Duma has for the last eight seasons analyzed more than one million head impacts measured by sensors placed in helmets. Charting the forces and directions of those collisions allowed researchers to identify the most vulnerable areas of the helmet and to develop the most effective safety tests.
Helmets were dropped from five heights to measure how much force reached the skull.
And why football helmets?
"It was the next logical step," Duma said. "We've done extensive work with the military and auto industry."
His timing is impeccable. Concussions and their long-term implications are on football's front burner like never before.
In Week 6 of last year's NFL season, the league fined Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson and Steelers linebacker James Harrison a combined $175,000 for blows to the helmet. Moreover, the NFL threatened to suspend future offenders
Former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson committed suicide in February, and Boston University researchers found that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition marked by memory loss and dementia and caused by repeated head trauma.
Closer to home, new state law requires high school athletes who display concussion symptoms to be removed from competition. Further, school districts are required to develop a concussion protocol by this summer.
According to the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study for the 2009-10 academic year, head and face injuries accounted for 19.2 percent of prep football injuries. Next on the list were ankles and knees at 10.7 and 10.1 percent, respectively.
But Duma and others attribute the high percentage not to an increase in concussions but to increased vigilance by trainers, coaches and parents.
"What's happening is we're reporting more concussions," Duma said. "There's not more concussions. I submit we're having fewer concussions."
Duma understands the good intentions behind mandated time off for concussed athletes but fears unintended consequences.
"What's going to happen is kids aren't going to report their injuries because they don't want to miss the next game," he said. "Every concussion is different. Every player is different. Just like every ACL reconstruction is different. …
"Athletes are getting bigger, faster, stronger every year, and the brain is not changing, but we have not seen a difference (in force impact)."
Duma credits that to improved helmets that offer not only more padding but also greater protection of the jaw line.
One of the most advanced helmets, the Riddell Revolution, is rooted in the repeated concussions that curtailed the career of Al Toon, a Pro Bowl receiver for the New York Jets from Newport News' Menchville High.