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Wolverines adjust to new football helmet shield to combat spread of COVID-19

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan football players have said they've been vigilant wearing masks, staying socially distanced, and limiting their outings from the football building to their homes and the occasional grocery store or food stop.

They’ve also continued to go through voluntary practices, and coach Jim Harbaugh said this past weekend during a parents-led “#WeWanttoPlay” protest his team has had 942 COVID-19 tests since the start of August through last week and all have been negative.

Michigan would have opened the football season last Saturday, originally scheduled at Washington and then in a revised 10-game conference-only schedule would have played Purdue at Michigan Stadium. Instead, about 160 players, parents and some fans showed up to protest the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the season.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren announced the decision on Aug. 11 because of lingering health and safety COVID-19-related issues. The Pac-12 also postponed fall sports, while the three remaining Power Five conferences, the SEC, Big 12 and ACC, are still planning to play.

The Michigan players, like those around the country, are attempting to decrease virus transmission by wearing a two-piece plastic face shield in their helmets to prevent droplets, coughs and sneezes from being released in the air during practices and, for those playing, in games. The NCAA in July issued guidelines for players to wear helmets with a mask or face shield.

An image of the new face shield that is being used on Michigan football players' helmets.

Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye showed a video to The Detroit News last month demonstrating how he adds the lower half shield to his helmet, which also has a visor so the entire face is covered and contained.

“Some other schools have the plastic thing over the full face mask and it looked horrible,” Paye said. “Our guys made it good with the visor and the small thing down here.”

Paye said the first day wearing it was “uncomfortable” but he adjusted.

“I figured out a way when the wind is blowing, if you turn your helmet a certain way you can feel the air through the ear hole and the side of the face mask,” Paye said, laughing. “I’ve been doing that a lot during practice.”

Harbaugh explained earlier this summer on the “In the Trenches” podcast that he and his staff initially limited reps, especially for the linemen, so they could get used to the helmets with face shields and not overheat.

“A lot of thought, a lot of planning,” Harbaugh said on the podcast. “As our guys wear their helmets now, you can see that face shield over the face mask, it does collect the spray that comes out of somebody’s mouth.”

During the protest march that began at the tunnel of Michigan Stadium, Harbaugh said the team’s rigid protocols continue to pay off. In August, there were 822 COVID-19 tests of the football players with zero positive results. Harbaugh said Saturday that the most recent 120 tests returned all negative.

Harbaugh has not heard from University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel, who is among the Big Ten presidents on board with postponing the football season. Harbaugh said he has texted and emailed Schlissel the team’s COVID-19 results.

“He’s aware,” Harbaugh said of Schlissel.

When pressed on further communication with Schlissel, Harbaugh replied with the team’s negative tests number.

“You think I’ve got some inside information or something. I really don’t,” he said. “I can tell you how practice was. I can tell you how the workouts have been. I can tell you we had another 120 tests that were all negative, that’s close to 1,000 tests in a row completely negative. I can tell you how the guys’ grades are right now, but that’s really the things I’m focusing on is training and coaching our guys.”

Harbaugh said it’s possible the Big Ten starts playing in October and his team would be ready to play after two weeks of padded practices. Until then, the team will continue to go through drills and get more accustomed to the new face shields.

“I haven’t had much of a problem with it,” defensive lineman Jess Speight said. “If it is raining, it will fog up like a normal visor might. (The equipment staff) made sure everyone’s face masks are secure. They’ve done a really good job as well as all the athletic trainers.”

Aidan Hutchinson, a junior defensive end, said if they go team-on-team in practice, they’ll add another protective layer with a mask under the helmet.

“It makes it a little bit harder to breathe, but I've gotten used to it, so I don't even notice it anymore,” Hutchinson said. “I'm good with it.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis