CALGARY — There are some big heads on CFL practice fields this season.
Players in four position groups were mandated to wear a product called Guardian Cap in training camp and padded practices. The cap is a soft-shell helmet cover designed to reduce the force of head impact.
Fans won't see the caps in games, but clusters of lumpy helmeted heads on the practice field is a different look from previous years.
Corrugated foam strapped onto an already-padded helmet makes players' heads look outsized and bobblehead-like, even on a 270-pound lineman.
"They look really goofy, but I mean, they're meant to help our brains and possibly help in CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) prevention," Calgary Stampeders defensive tackle Mike Rose said.
"I guess we'll find out in 25 years."
Stampeders running back Peyton Logan says he wore the caps in college practices in 2020 and 2021, so he's accustomed to them.
"I do look like a bobblehead when I'm out there," Logan said.
Said B.C. Lions fullback David Mackie: "It feels weird going in to contact and missing the true clack of the helmet, but after Day 1, I didn’t really notice a difference."
Montreal Alouettes offensive lineman Kristian Matte said when the Als first wore them in training camp "we looked like a bunch of mushrooms running around," but he feels the added head protection is important.
"We fought for player safety and the CFL came up with the idea of the Guardian Caps to help protect us," Matte said. "It takes some getting used to. They're kind of like miniature airbags on our heads.
"Some of us might like it, some of us might not like it, but it's one of those things that . . . we fought for so long for player safety with our bargaining agreements and this is just another one of those steps in the right direction to help keep players safe.”
Stampeders equipment manager George Hopkins is a walking encyclopedia of changing football technology, given his 52 years with the club.
He says the caps weigh less than a pound, but they do make a helmet look bulky, which took some Stampeders aback when the covers were introduced in training camp.
"It gives you an extra layer of absorbency," Hopkins said. "It's going to stop and deaden some of the impact and that's basically what you're trying to do.
"It's big. We chose to do our colour the same as the helmet to try and make it a little less noticeable, but I don't think there's any way you can make that less noticeable."
The CFL made the caps mandatory this season for offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and running backs in practices in which players wear pads. Other positional players can use them if they like.
"I'm a big proponent of head health and the Guardian Caps," Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back James Butler said. "The look is not it. I can't even lie about that.
"It definitely took some adjusting, for sure. In fact, I'm kind of still adjusting. It's a little bit heavier but it's kind of like running around with a weighted vest, a little bit . . . but I'd rather it be that than me taking hits to my head."
The NFL introduced the caps during the 2022 pre-season, and made them mandatory for the above-mentioned positions in contact practices throughout this season.
The NFL says its data indicates a Guardian Cap can absorb 11 to 12 per cent of a helmet hit for an individual player wearing it, and around 20 per cent for a helmet-to-helmet hit if two players wear it.
"If we get told it’s going to help our health long-term, I mean, we’re about it," said Mackie. "As players, we’re always preaching for the league to take care of us and be somewhat concerned about our health down the road.
"We don’t care how it looks if it’s going to help us down the road. We all want to make sure we live as long as we can and as healthy as we can."
The caps were among a suite of health-and-safety measures the CFL introduced this season along with collapsible tents near benches during games for medical assessments or examinations.
"We're going to do everything we can to keep our players as safe and as healthy and performing while they have their careers in the CFL and for their lives after," CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said.
"Sometimes change is hard, sometimes new things are awkward and a little bit comfortable but that's not going to shake our focus on an effort to keep our players safe."
— With files from Dan Ralph in Toronto, Nick Wells in Vancouver and Daniel Rainbird in Montreal.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2023.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press