Prep football: Leasing helmets

West Albany High football players practice in their helmets last week. The Bulldogs are partial leasers in the Harrisburg-based ArmorZone Athletic program. (David Patton | Albany Democrat-Herald)

Much to the delight of coaches, players and fanatics alike, football season is here at last.

As the popularity of North America’s favorite sport continues to skyrocket, so too do the costs of running a competitive high school program.

Between turf maintenance, pads, uniforms and other expenses, fielding a football team is a massive financial undertaking that puts a strain on most athletic departments.

The programs also must find a way to get their athletes into safe, state-of-the-art helmets.

And helmets are not cheap.

Riddell, the United States’ largest helmet manufacturer, offers its highest-rated 360 model for $389. The top designs from Schutt, Xenith, Rawlings and Adams aren’t far behind in price.

Thankfully for local programs, purchasing pricey helmets with limited shelf life is no longer the only option on the table.

ArmorZone Athletic, a Harrisburg-based company founded by Mark Elmblade in 2010, offers teams and individuals the option to lease a helmet instead of buying it.

The innovative idea has garnered rave reviews across the board.

“These are the best helmets money can buy. Mark does a great job getting top-of-the-line gear for us,” said South Albany High coach David Younger, who said he has leased about 20 helmets from ArmorZone this year for $65 to $75 apiece. “Leasing is beneficial for us because more of our equipment budget can be spent on other items, like footballs or for kids who need new cleats.”

“Buying new helmets is one of the hardest parts in managing a football program because you don’t always know how many kids are coming out for football,” first-year West Albany High coach Brian Mehl said.

Mehl leased more than 55 helmets from ArmorZone for the 2014 season. “I don’t want one helmet left sitting in my equipment room, but I also don’t want 40 sitting in there unused.

“Leasing works great because I don’t have to store (the helmets). The kids get fitted for them before they get leased out. The kid gets the exact helmet they tried on from the three or four highly-rated models, and the kid gets to pick the helmet they like the most.”

How prevalent has helmet leasing become in the mid-valley?

Most programs work with Elmblade to some degree.

Close to 100 percent of the school-provided helmets at Crescent Valley, Santiam Christian, Harrisburg and Central Linn are leased from ArmorZone.

Corvallis, Lebanon, South Albany, West Albany, Philomath, Sweet Home, Scio and Jefferson are all partial leasers.

“The idea of leasing came about when helmets started to get very expensive,” said Elmblade, who was a sales representative at Riddell for 13 years before breaking away to establish his own company. “I have three daughters who played the saxophone. We rented the instrument, and when they were done, we gave it back gladly when the lease was up. So I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we do that with helmets?’”

When Elmblade began working at Riddell in 1997, the company sold the VSR4 model for less than $100.

Riddell released its innovative Revolution (think Peyton Manning) model in 2002, expediting the growth of concussion-reduction helmet technology.

As helmets became safer and safer, they also increased in price.

“The Revolution became popular and parents started buying them for their kids because there was better technology,” Elmblade said. “But not all schools could afford to put their kids in Revolutions.”

For an experiment, Elmblade bought 100 new helmets in 2009 and leased them to a variety of small high schools, including Salem Academy, Crow and Falls City.

The trial was a resounding success.

Elmblade then founded ArmorZone in January 2010 and continued to add to his supply of helmets.

This year, Elmblade said that he’s leased approximately 1,500 helmets to high school players and several more to middle-schoolers.

“We have every brand of helmet in stock,” Elmblade said. “All of the helmets we lease are newly reconditioned or brand new and all of them are less than five years old. … We really give schools the ability to be flexible.”

The flexibility, along with the elimination of school district liability, is what attracted CV coach Scott Sanders to ArmorZone.

For the 2014 season, the Raiders will be sporting the Xenith Epic helmet, a model that uses Xenith’s patented Shock Bonnet Suspension system instead of traditional air cells or bladders. CV is also switching from black to red helmets.

“I did a lot of studying and you don’t have to put air into the Xenith Epics, and that has been the biggest problem with our kids over the years,” Sanders said. “Sometimes the kids will go behind our backs and let air out of the helmets, and those are the ones who would get concussions.

“In leasing the helmets, I basically wanted to take the liability off myself and off the school district because I just wasn’t comfortable putting kids in helmets. Mark’s helmets get recertified every year and it takes the liability off us. It just seems smart to go that route. It keeps the kids safer.”

All of ArmorZone’s helmets score highly on the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings, the unofficial “Consumer Reports” of the helmet industry. Virginia Tech scientists grade the bonnets from one (lowest) to five (highest) stars.

Nine models — including Xenith’s Epic and Riddell’s 360 and Revolution Speed — received five stars in Virginia Tech’s latest evaluations. Eight more models were given four stars.

“I just let Mark do his job with helmet fitting,” Younger said. “Mark will come in during the spring and do fitting for the kids. He does a great job getting them the helmet they need. Because of liability issues, I do not ever recommend what type of helmet a student-athlete gets, because there isn’t a helmet on the market that is going to completely prevent a concussion.”

The next frontier for ArmorZone, which offers services and equipment for many other sports, is California.

Unlike Oregon, where helmets must be recertified every other year, the Golden State requires annual helmet recertification.

Because ArmorZone handles the recertification process, leasing becomes even more attractive to California football programs.

“I have a new sales rep down in California and every school so far is thinking that this is the greatest thing ever because their cost for reconditioning is double what it is in Oregon,” Elmblade said. “For Oregon, it’s been really good so far. But in California, it’s a whole different level.”


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