CLEVELAND — Glen Wright, a whisper of a receiver and safety at Collinwood High School, arrived for last week’s game with a helmet so new, the sticker price was still attached: $399.99, plus tax.
Wright, a 17-year-old junior, said he called a sporting goods store looking for a helmet in the size that fit him: youth extra large.
“They only had one left,” he said.
His scramble to find a helmet reflected what coaches and athletic directors across the country say has been a shortage of helmets — and also, to some extent, of shoulder pads and uniforms — for high school, junior high and middle school football teams. The scarcity affected preseason workouts and has persisted into the regular season. Some headgear, when it can be found, has nearly doubled or tripled in price on the secondary market.
“It’s coast to coast,” said Doug Samuels, the head coach at Comstock Park High School in Michigan, who flagged the problem in a June column for FootballScoop, an online source of coaching news. The shortfall, he said in an interview, has forced coaches to confront unfamiliar questions like, who is liable if two players share a helmet and one gets a concussion because the chin strap was not properly adjusted?
Manufacturers attribute the equipment shortage mostly to Covid-related issues that many industries continue to face — kinks in the supply chain, transportation slowdowns and a lack of workers. 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 kind of a perfect 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 high school helmets and 60-plus percent for youth helmets. In late July, Riddell said it would fulfill pre-existing orders — which were above prepandemic levels — but would no longer accept new orders for the 2022 season, with some exceptions.
Dan Arment, Riddell’s president and chief executive, said in an interview that the company expected to clear its backlog this week and would soon begin taking orders for the 2023 season. “We know there are challenges out there, we know that not all of our customers are completely satisfied, but we really feel we have been part of the solution to this issue,” he said.
Perhaps no high school team has been thrown for a loss quite like the Collinwood Railroaders, who play in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and wear several brands of headgear. Collinwood’s helmets, sent to be refurbished in the off-season, did not arrive until two days before the team’s scheduled season opener on Aug. 19, Coach Greg Wheeler said.
Having been unable to hold practices in full pads or scrimmages during the preseason, and facing a mandatory acclimation period for full-contact workouts, Wheeler canceled the opener and the next week’s game. For the safety of his players, Wheeler said, “we thought it best not to play.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations said it knew of no other canceled games. But coaches and athletic directors have had to improvise to keep their players properly outfitted.
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Many schools have borrowed spare helmets from area teams or swapped helmets with rivals who needed a particular 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 are in need of 3XL helmets for this fall! If anyone has any they can spare (regardless of color) it would 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 searching 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 seven or eight players at the middle school level were limited to noncontact drills because they did not 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 high school helmet is 10 years. Helmets are reconditioned by the manufacturer every year or two. In prepandemic seasons, coaches said, they could send their helmets to be refurbished in the spring and have them available for fall camp. A new helmet needed during the season might arrive the next day. Not these days.
As its third game approached last Friday, Coatesville Area Senior High School, a Pennsylvania power outside Philadelphia, was still waiting for four new 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 keep up with the demand. As we get parts in each week, we are filling as many orders as possible. Back in early June, our backlog was 202,000 helmets.”
When Ortega searched online in early August for four or five medium-size helmets, the asking price was $480, compared with the $275 the school usually paid.
“I wasn’t paying that price,” Ortega said. Some helmets are now going for more than $900 online, a prohibitive cost for high school athletic budgets.
At Walpole High School, a shipment of 25 new helmets arrived last Tuesday, three days before the season opener, Dowd, the athletic director, said. If 15 to 20 players did not own their own helmets, Dowd said, “we would have had some serious problems.”
Robert Moreno, the athletic director and high school coach for the London Independent School District in Corpus Christi, Texas, drove two hours to San Antonio in August to buy three pairs of shoulder pads for middle school players. And seven 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 could have received online.
The helmets were “gobbled 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 joy 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 own helmets. With his roster expanding weekly, his stock of 30 helmets might be insufficient. Wright, the receiver, said his school-issued helmet hurt his forehead, 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 buy a new helmet, you play a good 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 prepare,” Wheeler said, “that would have made a big difference.”