Safety is the most talked about subject in high school sports, as it should be. And area football coaches have been listening.

All three area high school football varsity coaches have studied research on helmet safety and are leading the way in the area in bringing newer, safer helmets to their programs.

Somerset coach Bruce Larson is one of the longest-tenured football coaches in the area and he has also been one of the first to take proactive steps in equipping his players with state-of-the-art helmets. Larson credited Rice Lake coach Dan Hill for being one of the leaders in the state in studying helmet safety and bringing the advancements made in helmet construction to the attention of the coaches.

Last year, Somerset’s football program purchased 35 VICIS helmets. VICIS is a company that set a new standard in helmet safety, ranking at the top in several helmet studies, including one from the National Football League Players Association.

With the steps taken by VICIS, other helmet makers have upped their game. Larson said Schutt has a new helmet, VTD, that tests nearly as well as VICIS, and is a couple hundred dollars less expensive. Somerset bought 15 of those this year. Larson said his plan is to purchase 25 more helmets each of the next three years, to make sure all the Somerset players are all suited in one of the safest helmets.

Last year, Somerset’s parents were so impressed with the safety figures, there were 10 parents who purchased helmets for their players, with the coaches agreeing to buy back the helmets when the players complete high school.

The Somerset program isn’t stopping at the high school level. Larson said Xenith has a top-ranked youth helmet. Somerset has bought 40 of them for their players in sixth through eighth grade, with the plan to purchase 80 more to make sure all their middle school players are also well equipped.

Larson said there is also promising advancements being made in shoulder pad safety. Once Somerset has every player in a top-end helmet, Larson said he plans to invest in newly formulated shoulder pads for his players.

New Richmond and St. Croix Central are also taking significant steps in purchasing new helmets for their players. The biggest challenge in this is cost. The VICIS helmets cost more than $900. The Schutt VTD cost more than $700. All of the local football programs have been actively fundraising this summer, with much of the money raised earmarked for helmet purchases.

St. Croix Central coaches John Tackmann and Ryan Berg brought in the helmets from their playing careers to show parents how much more safely helmets are designed than they were in the past. They showed how their helmets had small pads and an air bladder that did most of the protecting. The new helmets have more advanced and complete padding, including shock absorption systems directly inside the shell of the helmet to lessen the immediate impact of any collision.

Tackmann said rules have also been changed to make the game safer. He used crack-back blocks as an example. He said that when he played collegiately at Winona State, if there was an interception, players were encouraged to make blindside blocks. Now, those blocks result in penalties.

Tackmann said there was only one concussion in the Panther program. That was a player who fell backward and struck his head, resulting him to miss one week of game time.

“We had more concussions from school lunch periods than on the varsity football team,” Tackmann said.

The way players are being taught to tackle is also resulting in a lower number of impacts to the head. Tackmann and Berg talked about players were taught to lead with their heads in the past, where they are now taught to tackle with their faces up so the impact is taken to the trunk of the body.

Tackmann said the Panthers have a schedule to continue adding as many new helmets as they are financially able each season.

New Richmond coach Reggie Larson said 17 new helmets were added in the Tiger program this offseason.

“I’d like all our kids to be in a (Schutt) VTD or VICIS in the next five years,” Larson said.

Larson said there were two concussions in the Tiger program last year, one happening in practice and one happening on a hit from below where the impact was taken on the chin. He said the team will track all concussions this year, based on the helmet brand and the type of impact that caused the injury.