Louisville entrepreneur Langston Gaither knows first-hand the damage that a tough football tackle can cause: He used to deliver big hits as a former semi-pro defensive end.
As a traditionalist, he does not like to see rule changes that diminish the game’s physical aspects – but he also wants to prevent players from suffering long-term consequences from repeated blows to the head.
Gaither has developed a shock absorbent pad that can be attached to helmets or incorporated in their design and which he hopes reduces the severity of impacts and the likelihood of concussions.
Through his company Gaither Design, he is raising funds to create prototypes and perform tests. He hopes to license the product to manufacturers of helmets, from ATV riding to water polo.
The 31-year-old entrepreneur and Louisville native recently pitched his idea at the Venture Connectors luncheon.
Gaither played football from an early age. He graduated from Western High School and played with the semi-pro Louisville Bulls and Hardin County Wolverines, delivering crunching tackles with his 5-foot-10.5-inch, 225-pound frame.
He remembers coming off the field with a headache. And getting up slowly after collisions.
“Back then it was, ‘Walk it off. Drink some water,’” he said.
He doesn’t blame the coaches.
“It was just lack of knowledge. We did not know how severe it was.”
But today, people know the dangers, and yet the basic design of the helmet, a plastic shell with an air and foam interior, has not changed.
“Humans are getting better. Equipment has to evolve with the athlete,” he said.
“We can do more.”
In the headlines
The dangers of concussions – and ways to prevent them — are increasingly being discussed in sports leagues around the world.
A progressive neurodegenerative disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, caused at least in part by repeated blows to the head, has prompted changes in major sports including football and soccer, particularly at the youth level.
The topic is likely to grab people’s attention again over the holidays: A major feature film, called “Concussion,” which starts Christmas Day and stars Will Smith, tells the story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered the connection between football and CTE.
Origins of the design
Gaither said he got the idea for his product when he looked at cell phone cases, which use a mix of approaches and materials to protect the phone’s screen, cover and central processing unit, or “brain.” Some areas of the cases, such as the corners, are reinforced, because they are the most likely areas to be affected by an impact.
Gaither figured that approach could be transferred to helmets, He wanted to avoid a cumbersome cushion on the full helmet and designed smaller cushions that can be attached to areas that see the most frequent and significant impacts: the sides, forehead, rear and crown.
After generating the cushion’s design on his computer and 3-D printing part of it, he researched what materials might work to absorb the force of any impacts. He chose a new shock-absorbent gel designed by a Canadian scientist and incorporated the new material into his design. Gaither said the scientist does not yet want to be named because his invention is new, and he does not yet have a patent.
Gaither said he envisions the Hard Knox Impact Pads to be sold in retail stores, allowing parents to affix the material to various helmets. The pads, which are beveled, would protrude from the helmet by about three-sixteenths of an inch.
Gaither said he also hopes to license his product to helmet makers, who could incorporate the pads into the design, which would lessen pads’ protrusion.
Retired Louisville entrepreneur Tom Reynolds said he has been impressed by Gaither’s project.
Reynolds, a former vice president at Glenmore Distillery and co-founder of WaterSaver Technologies, has mentored Gaither on the project. Reynolds said he was semi-retired two years ago and wanted to lend his expertise to a young entrepreneur. Greater Louisville Inc. put him in touch with Gaither.
The two got together, worked on a business plan and PowerPoint presentations, and got Gaither Design Co. incorporated.
Reynolds said he enjoyed helping the young entrepreneur. Gaither has “a lot of creative ideas, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of business experience,” he said.
The mentor said he believes Gaither’s product has a lot of potential.
Sports organizations, schools, universities, parents and players “are looking for a better way to protect the player, and that’s what this does,” he said. “I think it’s very viable.”
Reynolds said Gaither’s experience as a football player gives his approach greater authority.
“He brings an insight to it other than just an inventor,” he said.
A busy schedule
During his football career, Gaither performed various jobs on the side, including as a sheet metal worker and an undertaker.
These days, he serves as youth ministry coordinator at St. Stephen Church, where his father-in-law, the Rev. Kevin Cosby, is the pastor.
And since 2013, Gaither has served as a volunteer firefighter with the Lake Dreamland Fire Department.
He also works on other inventions – such as an improved rear derailleur for mountain bikes – takes classes at Simmons College, and plans to transfer to the University of Louisville to study mechanical engineering.
What time he has left he spends with his wife, Christine Cosby-Gaither, vice president for student affairs at Simmons College, and 7-year-old daughter Malay.
Gaither said he has invested about $10,000 of his own money into the Hard Knox project and has raised another $10,000 from local individuals and Kiva Zip crowdfunding. He is trying to raise about $150,000 more to pay for material purchases, prototyping and testing. Those interested can connect with Gaither on Facebook, Twitter or [email protected].