It was perhaps the darkest point of Shawn Springs’ life. His father, Ron, a former Cowboys great, was in a coma in a Dallas hospital, resting motionless, with almost no hope of ever regaining normal activities. Springs was separated from his wife and away from his 1-year-old son at the time, contemplating retirement from the Washington Redskins, spending hours by his dad’s bedside considering not only his own football mortality, but the very concepts of life and death and what it means to be healthy in mind, body and soul.
The summer of 2008 is one that Springs, a former first-round pick of the Seahawks out of Ohio State and one of the better cornerbacks of his era, will never forget. Congress was launching inquires into the NFL’s concussion epidemic around that time and while Springs mulled whether or not to keep playing, he found himself consumed by what life after football would bring him. Always inquisitive, with a mind drawn to business, science and investing (as a rookie, Springs would seek out Seahawks billionaire owner Paul Allen to ask about the early days of Microsoft), it was then that Springs first began to seriously evaluate what his next calling might be.
Springs would go on to play one more season in Washington (he was an All Pro there in 2004), before wrapping up his 13-year playing career with the Patriots in 2009. His father passed away from a heart attack in 2011 at age 54 after battling for four years in a coma after losing oxygen during what was expected to be a routine surgery to remove a cyst in 2007. By the time Springs paid his last respects to his hero -- a man beloved by NFL legends like Tony Dorsett, Everson Walls (who donated a kidney to Ron Springs), Tom Landry and Ed “Too Tall” Jones -- he was already well on his way to charting a venture that would form a unique nexus for his varied interests. His passion for football, cognitive science, concussions, business opportunities, innovation, health and safety led to Windpact, the startup he founded in 2011, that was recently recognized as one of the leading companies in its field by winning a $50,000 grant from the NFL in Houston during Super Bowl weekend.
Springs is the CEO of the startup today, spending the first three years in the venture studying the helmet industry intimately, determining which PHDs and researchers were at the top of the field. He gradually assembled a team that Springs believes is poised to continue to make significant breakthroughs in head-trauma-reducing technology that is being applied not just across various sports (football, girl’s lacrosse, equestrian, hockey, biking) but with the military, in the construction field, and in the automotive industry as well. He took a thorough and patient approach, resulting in a patent for his Crash Cloud technology that has shown to absorb and disperse impact energy more effectively in helmets than others. Springs incorporated elements of infant car seats into the technology for his protection foam, with Crash Cloud a system of soft, lightweight airbags that disperse energy upon contact, and then rapidly re-inflate to protect the user from a second blow.
“It really started with my dad, and seeing him in a coma and that really made me start to think about the brain and the science of that stuff,” Springs told me this week before jetting off from his Virginia headquarters to take part in a Harvard forum on cognitive science this weekend. “And back in 2007 Congress called manufacturers to The Hill and the NFL got called in and concussions went from a new issue, to ‘The Death of Football,’ and people saying it won’t be around anymore and a lot of hysteria out there.
“I grew up in football. I literally grew up in the Cowboys locker room with my dad, and I was like, ‘I have to do something.’ I was fascinated with the science behind this and I’ve always been interested in companies and how they got their start and I remember when I first got out to Seattle the first thing I asked Paul Allen was: ‘Did you know you were going to be a billionaire?’ And he said, ‘No, I was just trying to do something good for the world.’ That always stuck with me, and that’s basically what we’re trying to do here. So while some guys were looking at investing in barbershops or stores, I always knew I wanted to be involved in real estate and technology. I wanted to be the most innovative athlete ever.”
This is all fairly heady stuff, to excuse the pun, and something Springs -- affable and laid-back in nature -- takes quite seriously. He’s done well with other business and real estate entities since leaving the playing field, but poured much of that equity into this company as an angel investor, fueled in many ways by his own memories of growing up immersed in this game, recalling days at training camp literally carrying the helmets of his favorite Cowboys’ stars to the practice field.
“I took a big a risk and the initial start-up was all me,” Springs said, “and then I eventually raised some capital.” He’s now reached a point where Windpact is respected by major helmet manufactures like Riddell and Schutt, and it already has its technology on the market in the girl’s lacrosse field and has already partnered with Under Armour and Hummingbird Sports (which uses Crash Cloud technology in lacrosse helmets).
“When you start thinking about it, it kind of threw me off at first,” Springs said. “I was like, ‘Why is the helmet my dad wore in 1981 (when Ron Springs totaled 12 touchdowns for the Cowboys) the same one I wore in my last year in New England (2009)? I was kinda confused at first, like, ‘Why haven’t helmets changed more?’ Think how much a Honda Accord has changed in that time. So I started thinking about that, without trying to throw anyone under the bus. Why hasn’t it changed more?”
Springs, 41, was clearly proud to have been one of three companies to win the grant from the NFL at the league’s second annual “1st and Future” event on Super Bowl weekend. Besides the financial prize, the grant also allows Windpact, which is based in Leesburg, Virginia, about a pick-six away from the Skins training facility in Ashburn, to gain entry to the Texas Medical Center Accelerator to further develop their technology. Springs literally built this company, taking it from an arcane concept into reality, prying some of the best young minds from leading research schools like Virginia Tech, building relationships with research facilities, identifying a legal team to procure trademarks, and ending up with upward of 70 employees including researchers based at outside facilities.
“How long would you think it takes to build a team that wins?” Springs said when asked about his vision for his company. “Think about it in terms of football. I know I need a QB and a LT and a couple of corners and a 3-technique, and I built it like that. I took everything I knew from football and built an organization and put a smart team around me -- a good GM and head coach. It ain’t that hard, you’ve just got to think about it. I used common knowledge.
“I knew first and foremost I needed a great team of engineers, so I started researching and studying who were the top engineers in industrial science. It’s not that hard. When you were in class you could figure out pretty quickly who the smartest guys were, right? So you find the best engineering firms and watch them work, and you could tell, ‘OK, this dude is a rock star.’ And so you start recruiting them and plucking them off. ‘You work on infant car seat air bags? You were the innovator of the year? Okay, hmm.’ We went and got rock stars.”
This company, while deeply rooted in the structure and culture of football, is about much more than that sport. The game is embedded in Springs’ heart and he’s passed it on to his twin sons. Samari is committed to play at Richmond in the fall, while Skyler is committed to Georgetown. Both are defensive backs, like their father. But Springs spends as much time worrying about a teenager suffering a concussion on a skateboard ramp, or a middle-school kid being bucked off a show-jumping horse, as he does dwelling on the inherent head trauma in football. He intentionally set about finding a system that would function across all platforms, and notes that football is actually a small part of his overall business model, though obviously one near and dear to him.
“I’m not out to compete with the big boys, I want to work with Riddell and Schutt,” Springs said. “I think that the best way to think of it is, I’m like BASF (Springs says referencing the commercials for the German-based chemical company) -- I don’t need to make the product, I want to make the product better. Ultimately, I want there to be a better helmet for sports, the military, construction, and for our technology to be spread into a lot of the top brands.”
That vision drew him to airbags and child car seats, looking to adapt the principles that make them safe to concussion-reducing helmets. Springs also saw inefficiencies with how helmet testing was done, in a slow and repetitive sequence, dropping helmets time and again and logging the impact data. Instead, he wanted to replicate progress in the auto industry where computer-generated models can work out complex changes before manufacturing of the prototype begins.
“What industry changes super fast,” Springs said, speaking himself even more rapidly than usual, his passion pouring through. “Automotive. When I went to the sporting industry, they would put foam in the helmet and keep dropping it to test the results. That’s slow. I was like, ‘What if the guys who do the car modeling could bring that kind of thinking to the sports world?’ If they can do it for cars and jet engines, I know they can do it for helmets. So we took the airbag science -- that is my secret sauce -- and added foam and some really, really smart guys figured out a way to create this airbag model for me.”
Springs shuttles between testing facilities and meetings with giants in the helmet industry, attends conferences, and functions as the face of the company. He made sure he was an expert of sorts in the field before making attempts to bring his technology to others, and that slow and steady approach could pay off with some lucrative arrangements soon enough as he is in regular discussions with top brands, some of whom, only naturally, would prefer Springs’ patented technology be proprietary to their company in a particular helmet field.
He’s built a team with a common desire to make helmets safer for kids engaged in everyday activities, like bike riding, roller skating, and he is particularly excited about a catcher’s face mask Windpact is working on for all levels of baseball. Springs estimated he suffered at least two concussions during his playing days, but this was still the era where “they’d give you smelling salt and send you back into the game.” He is as concerned about trying to mitigate the repetitive trauma of repeated small blows to the head as he is the obvious knock-out shots you see in the NFL.
“In the last five years what we’ve learned is the impact of the cumulative effect; it doesn’t have to be big blow,” Springs said, pointing to Luke Kuechly’s situation in Carolina last season.
He is enthused by the NFL changing, he believes, to more of a speed and explosion game, with plays like Julio Jones’s amazing sideline catch in the Super Bowl exemplifying the NFL now more so than the “Jacked-Up” highlights of the past. Also giving Springs hope that football will be around a long time? The league’s rule changes, players being more aware of brain trauma, a trend to more flag football for youngsters, and the progress being made in innovation give Springs. In his own way, he aims to improve it -- and make headgear safer for all those who require it across various walks of life -- while acknowledging that concussions won’t be likely be solved in his lifetime.
“In years past we might not have understood it, but today we have a better understanding of brain trauma,” Springs said, “and the game is getting safer than ever, I really believe that. I love this game. I grew up in the Cowboys’ locker room and if anybody is a true football guy, it’s me. My pedigree, I grew up with Tony Doresett, Mike Ditka, Dan Reeves, Tom Landry, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, those are the guys I’m getting water for at 7 years old. And then to have Mike Holmgren, Joe Gibbs and Bill Belichick as my coaches when I played the game in the NFL for 13 years. It makes you smart enough that you really understand the game and the problems we have with it, and just crazy enough to think you can change it.”