It's not the forward pass, but Delaware invention may have saved football
As Mount Pleasant High’s defensive coordinator, Matt Greenberg is well versed in the art of concocting various schemes and strategies to thwart an opposing offense.
Devising a defense to safely ward off the spread of a deadly virus?
That was different type of challenge.
But Greenberg, as in his role as a football tactician, plotted with a colleague in sports gear design to invent a product that has been instrumental in allowing Delaware high school football teams to mount a goal-line stand against COVID-19.
Most of Delaware’s teams, and many in neighboring states, are wearing a fabric mask that attaches inside the faceguard of the helmet, blankets the nose and covers the mouth safely but not too snuggly, allowing a pocket to breathe.
“That was a game changer,” said St. Georges coach John Wilson, the Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association president.
In true Albert Einstein fashion, Greenberg, who works in team sales at Al’s Sporting Goods in Wilmington, said the symbolic light bulb went off in his head. Sharing his vision was co-developer Vaughan Sawdon of Wilmington’s G2 Performance Apparel, which specializes in athletic-style marching band uniforms.
“It was just like, 'No one’s doing this, let’s come up with something and make it perfect, make it great,’” Greenberg said.
The key factors, he said, “were to protect the kids, let’s make sure it’s covering everything, that it’s not making them not be able to breathe.”
The face covering is called the HANC, an acronym for healthy athletic interior covering.
It’s manufactured at G2’s Newport factory and several other production facilities and distributed through Al’s Sporting Goods. Greenberg and Sawdon are seeking to have the product and design copyrighted.
The four-ply nylon and cotton product was approved by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association’s sports medicine advisory committee.
"When worn properly, they're a very good tool," said Dr. Bradley Bley, the sports medicine committee's representative on the DIAA Board of Directors.
The mask costs about $8. Many schools have bought them with their logos and school colors, which cost more.
“They’ve made a huge difference for the kids,” said Wilson. “It hits their nose and it allows them at least to breathe a little bit. It creates an air pocket but it does cover up.’’
With college and pro football not employing any type of mouth covering, it’s possible they could even adopt the device as a means of virus mitigation.
“In college I think it’s the right thing to do because you’ve gotta protect these kids,” Greenberg said. “They’re not wearing anything, and that’s the scary part.”
During the summer, Wilson was studying various mouth and nose coverings being proposed around the country for possible use in Delaware.
Among the devices considered were plastic faceshields attached to helmets, outer coverings affixed to the facemask and a fabric “Gator” that stretched up from the neck over facemasks. That was deemed a choking hazard. Traditional surgical masks that loop onto the ears were also considered.
Around that time, Sawdon, a 1998 Salesianum graduate, ran into his old friend Greenberg at the Jewish Community Center swimming pool. After the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, Sawdon, who does business with many high schools and colleges, saw his sales drop and began manufacturing facemasks. Greenberg, who outfits high school teams, was also looking for ways to increase business.
“We said ‘Look, we should really get together on a project. We all need to help each other out right now,’ ” Sawdon said. “We saw the issue of the football masks and sports returning. He explained to me what the mask has to do and how a mask functions – I never played football – and then we looked at what was out in the market place. We wanted to make sure we put a better product out there.”
‘Just a gem’
Greenberg and Sawdon tried several prototypes, with Greenberg even slipping on a football helmet for the first time since he played at Mount Pleasant. He was also on Mount Pleasant’s state championship baseball team as a junior in 2000.
“I was able to combine my strengths of manufacturing and advertising,” Sawdon said, “with Matt’s knowledge of sports and equipment function and get it in front of the teams and players.”
The covering they developed fits inside the helmet’s facemask and attaches to it with Velcro straps. The design really wasn’t finalized until about a month ago.
"The options that we had were not great," Bley said of before their mask was produced. "Seeing these coverings become available really, really helped and made it a lot easier . . . When worn as designed they completely cover the nose and mouth and they're very effective."
One of the main challenges in the design process, Sawdon said, since the device covers the bridge of the nose, was making sure the player’s vision wasn’t obstructed.
“I did send John Wilson a sample,” Greenberg said. “Me being a coach, I kinda new what I wanted for my players. The day I sent it to John I got a phone call and John was like ‘This is the best thing out right now.’ ”
When football practice began in early October, football players, who were required to wear masks, first donned the traditional face coverings.
They made breathing difficult, said Mount Pleasant head coach Randy Holmes.
“I was wondering how we were going to be able to even do it,” Holmes said. “I’m 55 now. But if I was a player still, back at UD, playing with [a traditional face covering], that would be rough, especially with this one that’s sitting on our face.
“The one that [Greenberg and Sawdon] came up with is just a gem. We immediately saw a lift in practice when the kids started wearing those. We even lost a kid early that just couldn’t deal with the traditional mask at all. He had a little asthma, too, so I got it. Nice sized kid so it was a shame to lose him.”
After the switch to the internal mask, “It felt like normal football,” Greenberg said. “It does press on the nose. But when it comes down it’s actually off the mouth for enough space for the mouthpiece. We had to put all that into play.”
While players would certainly rather not have to wear the internal mask, they’ve gotten used to it and certainly prefer it to traditional masks.
“It gets a little hot sometimes,” St. Georges junior offensive tackle/linebacker Michael Santos said, “but once you’re in the game, you don’t really think about that.”
“In the beginning, we had the regular masks and they were tight on our face and we couldn’t breathe that well,” said Mount Pleasant junior defensive back Ahmir Batts. “These masks, they really are a help. We can breathe really well. We don’t get out of breath as fast and it’s not too tight on our face.’’
Knowing his coach is the co-inventor is also “pretty cool,” Batts added. Most importantly, Batts said, when he’s in close contact with other players or in piles, he definitely feels safer having the interior mask on.
His players wearing those masks also comforts Holmes. He often visits and cares for his mother Shirley, whom he recently moved to Delaware.
“She has some health conditions and I don’t want to bring [the virus] to her, but I feel safe,” he said.
More than 3,000 of their masks have been sold so far. Sawdon feels there could be another big sales surge in the spring, when some high school and college football seasons have been repositioned.
Greenberg and Sawdon are now in the process of designing masks for ice hockey and lacrosse.
“The players have given it such a positive review,” Sawdon said. “ . . . Is this going to be one of those products that’s going to be a staple safety product for that athletic activity? Years ago, people didn’t even have mouthguards. Now that’s a common practice.”
Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at email@example.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.