By: Zoltan Mesko
My path to professional football started in the unlikely form of a botched kickball play. I was in eighth grade, having emigrated to the United States from Romania just three years before. Determined to prove myself with a home run into the bleachers, I approached home plate with determination and perhaps a little channeled rage. So you can imagine my dismay when I popped the ball up and smashed a gymnasium light.
As the class ran from the falling sparks and shards of glass, my Phys. Ed. teacher, Mr. Springer, approached me with an ultimatum. Either pay for the light, or kick for the high school football team next year. After calculating that a new light would cost almost a year of my $10 weekly allowance, I made the choice to pursue football. I could never have imagined what opportunities that broken light would lead me to.
Football, the ultimate team game, has been a boundless teacher in my life. The sport’s accelerated feedback loop of successes and failures instill in its participants a great deal of work ethic, discipline, collaboration, and an overall ability to overcome hardship. Perhaps most importantly, football taught me the power and camaraderie of a team working towards a common goal. These lessons have had an undeniable impact on most facets of my life.
With that said, football is a grind. Between the hours spent at practice, the exhausting travel schedule, and a revolving door of injuries, football players often push their bodies and minds to the limit. Most recently, the football community has become acutely aware of the long-term effects of concussions and sub-concussive impacts. These findings have left many to wonder what the future of the sport will be if we can’t find a solution.
Although I’ve been lucky in avoiding most major hits as a punter (a position that required more acting than hitting when someone got close to me), a chilling play during the 2010 Senior Bowl opened my eyes to the trauma of concussions. Chasing the punt returner down the sideline, I was knocked to the ground by a hard hit. For a full two seconds, my vision went completely dark. As I came to, I couldn’t even feel the discomfort the wind and rain had created on that 34-degree day. I woke up the next morning to a terrible headache that persisted for the better part of a week.
Soon after, I was drafted by the New England Patriots. It was during my time in the NFL that I came to realize the truly debilitating effects of head impacts on longtime athletes. One of my teammates could not be in a bright room for several weeks due to his sensitivity to light. Others suffered month-long headaches, nausea, balance troubles, and more.
While these were adults who had chosen to pursue football professionally, I couldn’t help but think back to my high school and college teammates who had suffered similar symptoms. How could a student-athlete focus in a classroom if he has a persistent headache or can’t stand the light? As a new father who hopes to see my child play sports someday, it has been impossible to shake this worry about the potential risks.
I was inspired by my firsthand experience with concussions to look for a solution – something that could make a measurable difference in this sport and quickly. Football is a great teacher, and I want to do my part in mitigating the harmful costs increasingly associated with the sport.
From my rudimentary knowledge of physics, I first conceived of an impact-reduction device in 2014. We know that if a person in motion is given a longer time or distance to stop, the more comfortable the event will be as the person experiences lower deceleration.
I approached my now co-founder, Ben Rizzo, to pitch him my idea: I wanted to design an attachment for football helmets that would spread the impact of a hit over space and time, reducing the force experienced by the player’s head. Ben liked the idea, so we ran with it. We founded Exero Labs in 2016 and have made enormous progress since joining forces. We are now working on perfecting the technology, testing it in the field, and make it available to football players everywhere. Shameless plug, but feel free to follow our progress on Facebook or at exerolabs.com.
It’s hard to quantify my immense passion for the game of football, as it has cast me into the individual I am today. If anything can be done to make kids more safe and keep playing this sport I love so much, I’m going to do it.
Zoltan’s invention was recently featured on The Herd with Colin Cowherd. Click here to listen now.