Detroit’s Xenith tackles big boys in football equipment

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nestled in the back of a 66,000-square-foot warehouse, three successive beeps ring throughout the impact testing lab.

After a brief pause, a metal rod hurls toward a crash test dummy’s head at a rate of roughly 6 meters per second. The only protection is a football helmet from Xenith, the Detroit-based football equipment manufacturer that’s part of Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert’s family of companies.

The impact sounds like a gunshot and sends the dummy head flying backward.

It’s a 1-in-100 type of hit that makes onlookers cringe, but one necessary for Xenith to improve its top-ranked helmets in its quest to reduce the risk of head injuries for the millions who play tackle football.

According to president Ryan Sullivan, Xenith is the fastest growing company in the field and has doubled its business since moving its headquarters and production facility to Detroit from Lowell, Massachusetts, in 2015. With Gilbert as a shareholder, Sullivan added there is a strategic push behind the move that has helped the company flourish.

“It’s a great place to be for a company like ours, given that we’re at the intersection of sports and technology,” said Sullivan, who took over as Xenith’s president in March 2016.

“There’s a lot of great manufacturing talent and resources here in this region, in addition to some great academic resources that makes sense for us as a business to tap into, whether it’s Wayne State University — where some of the original helmet testing was piloted back in like the 1960s … or the University of Michigan, which has a lot of good thought leadership, especially in football helmet technology.”

Sullivan estimates the company holds a 10-20 percent share in the football helmet marketplace, behind Schutt and market leader Riddell, and ahead of Seattle startup VICIS.

But what sets Xenith apart from the competition is also what’s helping it close the gap in the market.

Xenith was founded in 2006 by Dr. Vin Ferrara, a former Harvard University quarterback. Ferrara developed Xenith’s core innovations, highlighted by its patented shock bonnet technology, a floating web of shock absorbers that line the inside of the helmet and allow the outer shell to move independently of the athlete’s head.

The shock absorbers themselves have compressing properties that are designed to respond to an array of dynamic impacts and forces through air pressure.

By contrast, traditional helmets with foam and pads glued to the shell move in unison with the athlete’s head, and their protection is based on the compressive properties of the foam and pads.

“(The shock bonnet) helps dissipate the forces of an impact over a much greater surface area and really helps to mitigate what are known as rotational forces,” Sullivan said. “Rotational forces is what a lot of the medical research is showing leads to things like concussions, CTE and other mild traumatic brain injuries.”

What also separates Xenith is its attachment system, which is 100 percent mechanical and adapts to the head. While traditional helmets have chinstraps attached to two points on the shell and utilize air bladders that can fluctuate with the weather and temperature, Xenith’s chin strap goes all the way to the back of the neck so when it’s pulled tight, the shock bonnet squeezes behind the neck to offer a custom fit at all times.

Top marks in tests

Xenith introduced its technology in 2009 when it rolled out its first model, the X1. Xenith’s fourth-generation helmet and latest models, the X2E+ and EPIC+, were introduced this year.

The X2E+ and EPIC+ each come in youth and varsity models, with high school generally used as the dividing line between the sizes. The X2E+ has a more approachable price point range at $190-$290, whereas the EPIC+ retails between $270-$350. Xenith also has a library of over 450 colors for custom paint jobs, from matte and glossy finishes to fades and designs, at an added cost.

Xenith’s models have received top marks in two different independent third-party tests. The X2E and EPIC models are both ranked five stars by Virginia Tech’s STAR ratings system for helmets that reduce concussion risk. Four models — X2E, X2E+, EPIC and EPIC+ — ranked among the top 11 performers in the 2017 NFL and NFL Players Association’s helmet laboratory testing results for helmets that best reduced head impact severity under conditions simulating potential concussion-causing impacts.

Fitting youth to pros

Xenith helmets are worn by football players from the youth level all the way up to the NFL, including Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead and cornerback D.J. Hayden. The company also has a presence throughout Europe and Australia as well as in Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Japan, China and South Korea.

In Michigan, Xenith is worn at several colleges (Michigan, Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, Grand Valley, Saginaw Valley State and Albion), numerous Metro Detroit high schools, including all the football teams in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and a handful of youth football leagues.

Clarkston coach Kurt Richardson said his program has used a mix of Riddell, Schutt and Xenith helmets for the 130 players on junior varsity and varsity the past couple seasons. Richardson said the players who wear Xenith like the fit. However, he said some players aren’t too fond of Xenith’s special chinstrap and different clips.

Like Richardson, River Rouge coach Corey Parker said his varsity team has Riddell, Schutt and Xenith helmets, but the majority of the starters wore Xenith last season. Parker said his players like how light the helmets felt but when it came to the aesthetics of the face mask, some were drawn to it while others thought it was a bit too much.

“When you really dial in to a safety point of view, as far as the rankings, it’s one of the safest helmets on the market,” Parker said.

Xenith is also the official helmet of several premier high school football events, including the Under Armour All-America Game, U.S. Army All-American Bowl and Blue-Grey All-American Bowl.

Other sports opportunities

Sullivan said Xenith is focused exclusively on football, but is possibly looking into other sports. The company also makes football shoulder pads and other accessories, but helmets are its top seller.

According to Sullivan, most of the Xenith helmet shells are manufactured by Sturgis Molded Products in Sturgis, and components for inside the helmets are sourced from the U.S. and Asia.

All the Xenith helmets are assembled, tested, painted, reconditioned, warehoused and shipped at the production facility in southwest Detroit.

During the peak season, which runs from the Fourth of July to Labor Day when 100 people are employed, Sullivan said the production facility can make a helmet every five minutes at peak velocity and produce more than 1,000 a day.

All helmets must pass an array of performance and durability tests before they can be shipped out.

In an age when football participation has taken a hit and there’s growing awareness about head injuries in the sport, Xenith shows no signs of slowing down.

“We’re here for a reason, we’re here for a purpose and that’s to help make better equipment to help keep athletes safe,” Sullivan said.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins