LUBBOCK, Texas — Berto Garcia, a computer engineering major at Texas Tech, would like to save the game of football from itself. He is 21 years old, and keeps his Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R motorcycle leaning on a kickstand in the driveway. A “Rock Star” sticker is on the right side of the bike, and he mentions a recent trip back from Austin, where he saw a J. Cole concert with an old football teammate, when he revved it up to 150 mph. He moves much slower now, walking past the bike to pull open a side door to his single-story, amber-brick house off campus, and continues into a darkened room. On one wall is a “Rocky” movie poster; a Styrofoam cup from Spanky’s, a burger-and-beer hangout, rests on a windowsill. The kitchen is down the hall to the left and well lit. It is his converted makerspace. He stores a tool kit on the top shelf. Pliers, wrenches, screwdrivers and a soldering iron line the wall. A board is affixed over the desk. The silhouette of a human head is painted on the wood. Inside, the outline of a brain is visible. There is a warning that goes with the image:
DO NOT READ MINDS
An IV pole donated by a hospital stands in the corner. On a hook hangs a black football helmet replete with a glossy exterior, three-bar facemask, cushioned interior and chinstrap. Garcia, a former high school player who gave the game up after suffering a concussion, grabs the headgear. It is a prototype for a project now five years in the making. No longer a combatant, he remains captivated by football’s Newtonian chaos, and points to three sockets that he built into the helmet. One is on the back and one is by each earhole. Inside the helmet is a microcontroller programmed to read force sensory data. Next to the helmet is a pair of shoulder pads. Three short poles stick up from the pads and are topped by plastic balls. They fit into the helmet sockets. Once connected, it is a ball-and-socket system that weighs five pounds. When a hit to the helmet occurs, the microcontroller in the helmet sends a signal to a microcontroller in the pads to activate pneumatics in order to stabilize the head immediately. Garcia believes it can reduce concussions by reining in whiplashes that strain neck muscles and rattle brains following collisions.
“I knew that if I was going to try to reduce concussions, I had to stop linear forces, as well as rotational forces,” Garcia says. “I was going to have to have an exoskeleton around the neck to be able to disperse all that energy away from the head and neck so that all of those forces don’t go right into your spinal cord, into your brain. They go straight into those stabilizers around the neck and head.”
As football grows ever more violent, Garcia’s focus is on the forces at play. Equipment standards are being questioned in light of the concussion crisis, and a growing chorus is calling for helmets and pads to be shelved so that flag football can become the preferred form of the game. At the same time, sensor technology is advancing; helmet designs are being reconsidered. Garcia holds a unique position in football’s future while current players incur head traumas and retirees battle brain disease. A junior at Tech, he possesses an entrepreneurial spirit, and continues to invent as he tracks football’s evolution. He collects data from tests that include firing projectiles from an air cannon to his helmet, and he keeps tabs on the number of teens who perish on the football field. While inspired by sports, his work has drawn interest from unexpected corners. In 2015, the Office of Naval Research gave him a $ 10,000 scholarship to pay for his curiosity’s growing costs. It was a boon for a student scientist who had initially financed his efforts by selling burritos at a West Texas truck stop to raise funds for his high school’s science fair team.
“When I began, I started buying all these things online,” he says. “Kind of blindly, with my eyes closed, but I have this, how can I say, I guess I could call it a skill that anything I envision, that I want to make, I can already see how it’s going to look like in the final product.”
Researchers continue to find troubling returns regarding football’s status quo. Garcia gauges how many G-forces players absorb during a hit. Seventy or more Gs are considered to be the cause of a concussion. Light-emitting diodes are wired inside Garcia’s helmet. They flash green above the facemask if the force is below 70 Gs. They flash red when it is more than 70. Garcia charts the numbers. In his wake are coding sessions, fundraising drives and long-term research that led him from West Texas to Pittsburgh for an international fair to filing a patent application. He knows Bill Gates and others are eyeing the market for better helmets.
“There are still a few little tweaks I have to make, too, making it water or sweat proof so nothing happens to it,” Garcia says. “That’s the biggest challenge at this point.”
There are risks that Garcia believes remain worth taking. He walks back outside, and he looks at his motorcycle. He mentions a 15-hour trip down to South Padre Island that he took during spring break. He also cites the anti-lock breaks and ability to slow better than most bikes in the rain as reasons for his recent purchase.
Berto Garcia, a former HS football player, is trying to develop a safer helmet while studying at Texas Tech.
(Courtesy of Berto Garcia)
“Pretty neat safety features,” he says.
* * *
Garcia grew up in Olton, Tex., where the road leading to the high school football stadium is stamped with blue horseshoes in honor of the Mustangs, who play there on Friday nights. It is a rusty nail of a town, 40 miles northwest of Lubbock, with a population of 2,100 residents, 200 high school students, and nearly as many oil derricks dotting the surrounding area. Outside a Dairy Queen by the Ag Producers Co-Op’s grain elevator, a billboard is updated for Hurricane Harvey:
Pray for all in harm’s way
He first played football in junior high school, but suffered a shoulder dislocation during his eighth grade season, in 2010. As a freshman in high school, his parents insisted he not play football so he joined the drum line, and performed with the tenors in the marching band during halftime of games. He returned to the team as a sophomore when a coach told Garcia that speed was a need the team had at wide receiver. He joined the squad two weeks into camp. Around that time, for his scientific research and design class with teacher Elias Perez, he started to deepen his understanding of brain injuries. Shortly thereafter, he was positioned on the front line for a kickoff. Upon watching the opposing kicker strike the ball, Garcia turned back to look at which teammate was returning it. The ball went all the way down field, and Garcia sprinted to meet the return man in order to block for him. As soon as Garcia looked back again, he felt something crash into his shoulder blade.
“I started tumbling to the ground,” he says. “As soon as I stopped I was laying back down, face up, and everything was just spinning. I was really disoriented.”
He attempted to get up and steady himself. He fell down once, but reported to the huddle because he felt duty bound. Dizziness remained.
“I didn’t want to go out and say, ‘Hey, coach, I’m feeling bad,’” he says. “You know, football players, you want to walk it out, tough it out, so that’s what I did.”
Ever safety conscious as engineer trying to revolutionize football helmets and equipment, Berto Garcia straddles what he says is among safest of motorcycles.
(Courtesy of Berto Garcia)
Garcia did not remember the play that the quarterback called out. He figured that he could line up without costing the team a time out. As a receiver, he was required to point to the referee in order to make sure he was on the line of scrimmage. He remembers doing that, but he also notes that he was off balance.
“The referee looked at me, like, ‘Are you okay?’” he says. “I got his OK. We did that play. I tried to take off running; I started to stumble, and I actually picked myself back up with my hand, and then I just looked back and the play had failed, an incomplete pass. I looked back and tried to go back to the huddle, still very disoriented. That’s when I thought, ‘OK, there’s something wrong here.’”
Garcia retreated to the sideline. He informed one of the assistant coaches that his head hurt and he was dizzy. His head was throbbing by then. The coach told Garcia to sit down so that he could be checked out.
“There’s really no way right now to diagnose a concussion,” Garcia says. “Doctors can take a look at you but they can’t really see inside your brain. They can’t see if you’ve really had a concussion or how severe it is. I was just going by the symptoms and the research. There’s no telling how many more I had throughout the years I played.”
During junior high, Garcia noted a tingling feeling in his face after he was hit on multiple occasions. His head hurt after practices. He shrugged those ailments off as part of the game until he started furthering his research. Football was not his only activity. He ran cross country and track; he played basketball, baseball and tennis. His parents had never wanted him to play football, but he suited up anyway.
“My parents let me do everything else except for football,” he says. “I was in the marching band, so I would march out during halftime of football games. Every time I went on the field, I knew I missed it. Plus the coach letting me know they needed wide receivers. I knew I wanted to go back.”
Garcia never played another game after suffering that concussion.
“I told myself I wasn’t going to play anymore,” he says. “I started doing research instead.”
Scenes from Berto Garcia’s work area includes his testing apparatus …
(Kevin Armstrong/New York Daily News)
* * *
“The Options Building,” as it is known in the Olton School District, is a yellow brick structure that stands a block east of the high school. It is across Main Avenue from Happy State Bank and next to the public library. An eccentric neighbor who goes by “Big Chief” has a pair of tepees set up in a bordering lot. The inside of the school building resembles a reliquary. Once part of the district’s alternative education program, it is a storage space for old science and audio-visual equipment. Filing cabinets and old desks fill the space. Garcia remembers rearranging them to work on presentations as a student when science classrooms were being renovated.
“Golly, it was like we stepped back in time,” says Elias Perez, a science teacher. “We got kicked out, had to go somewhere.”
Garcia wrestled with what role he could now serve in a game that he no longer participated in as a player, and Perez sought ways to channel Garcia’s energies into engineering. Garcia wracked his brain to come up with a project when it was first assigned, in the fall of 2012. The broad strokes involved protection against head trauma. After Garcia endured the concussion, Perez encouraged him to incorporate his firsthand experience. Perez showed Garcia an article of how scientists were studying animals, like woodpeckers, to see how they pounded away without encountering brain damage. Perez kept stacks of “Popular Mechanics” issues nearby for reference. Garcia fixed his attention on bonding a helmet and shoulder pads. It was not groundbreaking, but Perez considered it a solid first step.
“Maybe the hit to his head jarred something loose,” Perez says.
To start, Garcia screwed straps of metal to the pads, and established the image of stabilizing. It was a bit of a rush job with materials coming in last minute, but it was good enough to earn second place honors at the South Plains Regional Science and Engineering Fair at United Spirit Arena in February 2013. To get that far, Garcia proved dedicated to the task, raising funds by selling burritos and cookies at a truck stop. Garcia’s budget that first year was $ 500. Neither Perez, nor Garcia knew that a window was closing regarding their time together, though. Garcia’s father, Jose, lost his job when the denim mill he worked at closed. Jose transitioned to a job as a truck driver, and moved the family to Shallowater, a town 39 miles south of Olton. Garcia transferred schools, but there was no science fair class his junior year. Still, Garcia furthered his research. He then enlisted the assistance of Leslie Griffis, a physics teacher at Shallowater High, to help him get back into the science fair world as a senior. In the interim, Garcia taught himself how to code by exploring Google, YouTube and several technology website forums.
“The coding probably took me the longest,” Garcia says. “I want to say it took me half of junior year and most of senior year. It was quite a process.”
He arrived at his eureka moment around 2 a.m. one day. He did not have a workspace at school, and his mother, Esperanza, grew agitated with his habit of leaving burn marks on the kitchen tabletop due to his soldering iron. After dinner, he would seize the table, taking off all the plates and propping up his laptop and tools. He figured out how to get the right amount of feedback and translate that information to where it would activate the stabilizers instantaneously.
… and a helmet.
(Courtesy of Berto Garcia)
“I was sitting back in my chair, pressed enter and it ran,” he says. “I tested out the sensor and I saw the stabilizers immediately activate. I was like, ‘Yes!’ I almost fell back in my chair. My mom comes out of her room and asked what I am doing. I’m like, ‘I’m just really excited that I figured this out!’”
Garcia’s march continued. He won the gold medal at the regional fair in 2015, and that qualified him for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, Pa. He entered the state fair at the University of Texas-San Antonio to put his system through a few more practice runs, and prepared for the biggest stage.
Once at the fair in Pittsburgh, he was granted the Chief of Naval Research Scholarship. When receiving the honor, he listened as military officials debated where his system could best be deployed. One of the Army officers insisted tank drivers could use it because of the impacts they receive from expansion blasts that come from bombs. The air force noted that it could be utilized with fighter jet pilots as they receive Gs to their bodies on turns. Garcia placed third in his category.
“I guess a lot of people would be excited and things like that. I kinda sat there and really wanted that first (place),” he says. “My teacher was like, ‘Berto, you got third place in the world, how can you not be happy?’ I still wish I was first. I have a very competitive side. It was a very humbling experience.”
His network expanded. Garcia met professional engineers and doctors, including a General Motors safety engineer, who informed Garcia that his company was working on a similar system with racecar drivers. Garcia says the engineer asked, “How did you get your system to have a fluid motion, where you could turn your head?” GM had been trying to design a system where it is not as difficult to turn one’s head, especially with stabilizers around your head or neck. Garcia had that same issue early on. With his first prototype, he had a ball-and-socket joint, but that joint was held by an elastic material that stretched with movement. That elastic was fragile in high impact collisions when Garcia ran tests. He switched to a quick release joint that he manipulated. The GM engineer noted that he had not done that.
“I was like, ‘I would love to talk with you more about it. Can I have your card?’” Garcia says. “He was like, well, technically I am a judge so I can’t give you my card. But my name is on there, look me up.”
Garcia shakes his head as he recalls the conversation. He lost the paper.
“I haven’t gotten in contact with him,” he says. “He was very interested.”
Berto Garcia’s Helmet Project in development.
(Courtesy of Berto Garcia)
Garcia filed for a patent in November 2015. It is pending, and pieces of the initial tests remain in Olton. Perez gifted 90 editions of “Popular Mechanics” to Garcia upon his transfer. An old air cannon collects dust among the filing cabinets.
“Whenever he needs it, it’s here,” Perez says.
* * *
Red T-shirts silkscreened with “Wake Me When It’s Football Season” across the front are for sale at the spirit shop inside Texas Tech’s student union. Black megaphones emblazoned “Wreck ‘Em,” the Red Raiders’ rallying cry, sit on shelves next to full-size replicas of on-field helmets. Garcia bypasses the merchandising maze to purchase a caramel frappe at Starbucks. He keeps active on campus with a number of hobbies that include fixing iPhone screens. His repair business, operated with a friend, is named “Break It, Fix It, Bought It.” The iPhone 7+ is the most recent to hit the market. Garcia owns a tool kit that he purchased for $ 70. He charges $ 200 to fix screens. Garcia and his partner give a $ 10 discount to first-time customers to “keep them coming back,” as he says. Some get a free screen protector, as well.
“I’ll sit here and students will see me fixing a screen,” he says. “There will be a crowd around me, like, ‘That’s so cool, how do you do that? What is that?’ We kind of grow by word of mouth like that. I also D.J. part time. My parents are always asking me what I want to be. I want to be the CEO of my own company someday.”
Garcia is a millennial studying on a football-mad campus. He is also an acolyte of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist credited with diagnosing the first case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in humans with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Omalu considers football to be “child abuse” for anyone under 18 years old. Garcia often contemplates the state of the game and where it is going. Players at all levels now encounter the concussion conundrum and wonder how many hits one’s head can absorb.
“I liked how physical the sport was,” Garcia says. “It was very fun. Any football player would agree that it is very fun hitting other people. I definitely liked running the ball whenever I was running back. That was probably my favorite position, or defensive end when you just get to blitz in all the time, and sack the quarterback. There were a variety of things that got my attention playing football.”
Mixed messages are prevalent in the game now. The helmet that Garcia uses for his prototype is manufactured by Schutt. When one clicks on the Schutt website, a warning box pops up. It reads: “Scientists have not reached agreement on how the results of impact absorption tests relate to concussions. No conclusions about a reduction of risk or severity of concussive injury should be drawn from impact absorption tests.” To enter the site, the reader must acknowledge that he or she has read the legalese. Once inside, a different tone is taken in the name of marketing. On one equipment page, the pitch is: “Intimidation Starts From The Top Down.” Another reads: “Discover The Science of Domination.” Garcia knows that player health and the billion-dollar industry’s bottom line do not always dovetail.
The awarding winning engineering student is still football fan at heart in Lubbock.
“I’ve been wanting to email NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, because I’ve been seeing a lot of his responses to concussion studies,” Garcia says. “I honestly think they should find someone else to fill his position. I feel like he is in it for the business, not so much for the safety of his players. And that is a shame honestly. They make enough money to where they should focus more on the players’ health.”
There is a complicated past involving concussions on campus, too. Texas Tech plays in the Big 12 Conference, at the highest level of the game. Jones AT&T Stadium fits 60,454 fans at capacity. The university is deeply invested in football financially, and signs reflect the union. The head coach’s parking spot outside the stadium is reserved 24 hours per day, but the position can be more tenuous when player treatment and politics mix. Mike Leach, the former head coach, was fired from his post after he allegedly confined wide receiver Adam James — son of former NFL player and analyst Craig James — to a closet after Adam was diagnosed with a concussion, in December 2009. Legal wrangling ensued, and Leach countered that he did nothing wrong. Leach now coaches Washington State, and Kirby Hocutt, a former linebacker at Kansas State, is the athletic director at Tech. Hocutt came across Garcia’s work, and requested a meeting with Garcia. The two sat down in Hocutt’s office along with Dr. Michael San Francisco, the honors college dean. Hocutt inquired about how Garcia went down this path.
“There’s no question the game is facing more threats today,” Hocutt says. “We need individuals like Berto to advance research. He’s at an advanced level. I feel fortunate that there are people like him. Football is a violent game, but I believe it is worth fighting for.”
Garcia hopes that he can test his system on Tech players in the future. For now, there are class assignments to complete. He finishes his frappe and heads out. Between the student union and the library, there is an art piece that is entitled “Tornado of Ideas.” The sculpture consists of more than a dozen bronze books caught in a whirl. They range from “The Divine Right of Capital” by Marjorie Kelly to “The Path to Tranquility” by the Dali Lama.
“When I was 16, I would tell my parents, ‘I feel like I should be somebody right now,’” Garcia says. “Like have a profession or be in college already. Sure enough I found that passion. It has been picking up. Just gotta keep working on it. I’m a little more confident with the patent pending. We’ll see where it takes me.”
* * *
“I’m still a great fan,” Garcia says as he looks around his workspace back in his house off campus. “I try to go out to every Texas Tech football game. I’m definitely always thinking about my experiences every time I see them play. I’m thinking, ‘That guy’s head must be throbbing or pounding after he got that hit.’ I tell a lot of my friends, ‘Well, if he was wearing my system, he wouldn’t have gotten that whiplash or his neck snapped back.’ It probably would be a lot safer.”
There is a rush on game day that remains with him when he watches from the stands. Players gather by a tunnel and sway together as smoke rises. Spectators in black garb make the shape of a weapon with their fingers. They shout, “Guns up!”
“I literally get goose bumps just thinking about it,” Garcia says. “All you see are hands in the air.”
Football stays with Garcia, but his interests are widespread. He notes that he needs a 3-D printer, and he fantasizes about cars. He eyes his motorcycle, and mentions that his parents gave him a red 1989 Firebird for his birthday when he was a sophomore in high school. For graduation, he upgraded to a 1989 Corvette. His dream car is a Nissan GTR, and he talks about revving up his interest in sports once more. In high school, he was a pitcher and could throw an 86 mph fastball.
“I was always trying to get up to 90,” he says.” Not sure if I would have gotten any collegiate offers, but that was something I was willing to give up for this greater cause that I was going for.”
“I’ve actually been thinking about playing club baseball here at Tech,” he says, “but engineering takes up a lot of my time.”