CLEVELAND — Glen Wright, a whisper of a receiver and safety at Collinwood High School, arrived for last week’s game with a helmet so recent, the sticker price was still attached: $399.99, plus tax.
Wright, a 17-year-old junior, said he called a sporting goods store on the lookout for a helmet in the dimensions that fit him: youth extra large.
“They only had one left,” he said.
His scramble to seek out a helmet reflected what coaches and athletic directors across the country say has been a shortage of helmets — and likewise, to some extent, of shoulder pads and uniforms — for prime school, junior high and middle school football teams. The scarcity affected preseason workouts and has continued into the regular season. Some headgear, when it may possibly be found, has nearly doubled or tripled in price on the secondary market.
“It’s coast to coast,” said Doug Samuels, the top coach at Comstock Park High School in Michigan, who flagged the issue in a June column for FootballScoop, an internet source of coaching news. The shortfall, he said in an interview, has forced coaches to confront unfamiliar questions like, who’s liable if two players share a helmet and one gets a concussion since the chin strap was not properly adjusted?
Manufacturers attribute the equipment shortage mostly to Covid-related issues that many industries proceed to face — kinks in the provision chain, transportation slowdowns and an absence of staff. The disruption has occurred, coaches and suppliers say, while demand has increased as more students return to football after two seasons unsettled by the pandemic.
“It’s sort of an ideal storm,” said Ron Dowd, the athletic director at Walpole High School in Massachusetts.
Riddell, a sports equipment company based in Illinois, has about 70 percent of the market share for prime school helmets and 60-plus percent for youth helmets. In late July, Riddell said it could fulfill pre-existing orders — which were above prepandemic levels — but would not accept recent orders for the 2022 season, with some exceptions.
Dan Arment, Riddell’s president and chief executive, said in an interview that the corporate expected to clear its backlog this week and would soon begin taking orders for the 2023 season. “We all know there are challenges on the market, we all know that not all of our customers are completely satisfied, but we actually feel we have now been a part of the answer to this issue,” he said.
Riddell said that helmet orders for its NFL and college customers have been disrupted “to various degrees,” however the impact is “less apparent” primarily because there are a lot of fewer players within the NFL (1,696 on energetic rosters) and within the NCAA (about 70,700 total in Division I, II and III) than in highschool (just over 1,000,000).
Perhaps no highschool team has been thrown for a loss quite just like the Collinwood Railroaders, who play within the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and wear several brands of headgear. Collinwood’s helmets, sent to be refurbished within the off-season, didn’t arrive until two days before the team’s scheduled season opener on Aug. 19, Coach Greg Wheeler said.
Having been unable to carry practices in full pads or scrimmages throughout the preseason, and facing a compulsory acclimation period for full-contact workouts, Wheeler canceled the opener and the subsequent week’s game. For the protection of his players, Wheeler said, “we thought it best to not play.”
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The National Federation of State High School Associations said it knew of no other canceled games. But coaches and athletic directors have needed to improvise to maintain their players properly outfitted.
Many colleges have borrowed spare helmets from area teams or swapped helmets with rivals who needed a specific size. Some coaches have scoured meager shelves at sporting goods stores. Others have visited hardware stores to make minor fixes to their team’s headgear.
On Aug. 23, Isiah Young, the coach at University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men in Rochester, N.Y., put out a plea on Twitter: “With the national helmet shortage and our increased numbers, we’re in need of 3XL helmets for this fall! If anyone has any they’ll spare (no matter color) it could be greatly appreciated!”
Young said in an interview that the University of Rochester lent his team one extra-large helmet and that he was still looking for two others. While University Prep’s varsity team was fully equipped, he said, two junior varsity players were sharing a helmet at practice and 7 or eight players at the center school level were limited to noncontact drills because they didn’t have headgear.
“We’ve never had this many kids come out for football,” Young said. “The helmet issue has put us in quite a predicament.”
The life expectancy of a highschool helmet is 10 years. Helmets are reconditioned by the manufacturer every 12 months or two. In prepandemic seasons, coaches said, they may send their helmets to be refurbished within the spring and have them available for fall camp. A recent helmet needed throughout the season might arrive the subsequent day. Not lately.
As its third game approached last Friday, Coatesville Area Senior High School, a Pennsylvania power outside Philadelphia, was still waiting for 4 recent helmets it had ordered in March, Coach Matt Ortega said. He read to a reporter a text he had received from his Riddell representative Aug. 2: “Our suppliers can’t sustain with the demand. As we get parts in each week, we’re filling as many orders as possible. Back in early June, our backlog was 202,000 helmets.”
When Ortega searched online in early August for 4 or five medium-size helmets, the asking price was $480, compared with the $275 the college often paid.
“I wasn’t paying that price,” Ortega said. Some helmets are actually going for greater than $900 online, a prohibitive cost for prime school athletic budgets. Riddell said it had not raised its prices.
At Walpole High School, a shipment of 25 recent helmets arrived last Tuesday, three days before the season opener, Dowd, the athletic director, said. If 15 to twenty players didn’t own their very own helmets, Dowd said, “we’d have had some serious problems.”
Robert Moreno, the athletic director and highschool coach for the London Independent School District in Corpus Christi, Texas, drove two hours to San Antonio in August to purchase three pairs of shoulder pads for middle school players. And 7 varsity players who still had their self-purchased helmets from middle school sold them to families of current middle school players for $100 apiece, Moreno said — far lower than the $350 they may have received online.
The helmets were “devoured up,” Moreno said, adding that interest was so high, he drew names in a lottery.
At Collinwood High School in Cleveland, the disruption to preseason and the cancellation of two games had been deflating, said Jacob Brown, 17, the team’s senior quarterback. When the Railroaders finally opened the season, on Sept. 2, they lost, 60-0. “It takes the enjoyment out of it,” Brown said. “A helmet shortage was never a thought.”
Wheeler, Collinwood’s coach, said he was glad several of his players had purchased their very own helmets. Along with his roster expanding weekly, his stock of 30 helmets is perhaps insufficient. Wright, the receiver, said his school-issued helmet hurt his brow, so he bought his own.
Not yet 90 seconds into last Friday’s game, he wrested a pass from a defender’s hands and ran for a 68-yard touchdown.
“My Pops said you purchase a recent helmet, you play a superb game,” Wright said.
He nearly caught a second touchdown pass, but Collinwood’s lack of preseason preparation became evident. The Railroaders played with intent but lost, 14-8.
“If we had more time to arrange,” Wheeler said, “that might have made a giant difference.”