The moving assembly line, automobiles, and the Motown sound are things closely associated with Detroit. But football helmets?
If Xenith has anything to say about it, Detroit will be known as a football helmet hub. The company has been working toward that end since it moved here from Massachusetts in 2015, when it became part of Dan Gilbert’s Rock Family of Companies.
“We’re proudly based and built in Detroit,” says Matt McPhail, chief design officer at Xenith. “That’s a mantra we continue to talk about.”
Founded in 2006 by former Harvard University quarterback Vin Ferrara, Xenith came into being after Ferrara dealt with several head injuries during his playing career. He believed there had to be a better way to make a football helmet. After spending three years on research and development, the company launched its first helmet — the X1 — in 2009, and the helmet and its derivatives are now worn by hundreds of thousands of players from the youth level to the National Football League.
According to Xenith, the protection its headgear provides is superior to what came before because of the technology involved. “The challenge was to not only convince people that it was different, but fundamentally better,” McPhail explains.
The first football helmets were leather. Next came plastic shells with a web of straps inside to cradle the player’s head, otherwise known as the suspension helmet. Then came foam pads that were affixed directly to the inside of the helmet shell.
Xenith’s technology, in the most simplistic terms, merges the suspension interior with components that act as shock absorbers and are distributed around the player’s head. It’s called the shock and bonnet system.
“The first X1 helmet has pneumatically operated shocks,” says Ron Jadischke, Xenith’s chief engineer. “What we did with later models is search globally for a company that has a cutting-edge material that can be changed with chemistry to have different characteristics and that has dynamic characteristics. We combine chemistry with several different geometries to get the desired result.”
Subsequent models include the X2E+, the Shadow XR, and the Epic.
Xenith’s research, along with production, takes place in a 66,000-square-foot warehouse facility inside Renaissance Global Logistics, located in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge in southwest Detroit. The company produces helmets, shoulder pads, and other football equipment.
In addition, the facility has a helmet reconditioning area — every year or so, helmets are returned, disassembled, cleaned, repainted, and components are replaced if necessary. When returned to the teams, they’re like new.
Xenith also has labs where products are tested. The impact testing lab is like an automotive crash test lane, where helmets and other gear are subjected to impacts as fast as 20 mph.
Another lab has several instruments that are used to test helmets and components. This area features multiple crash test dummy heads, each wired with sensors that reveal how effective a helmet is or isn’t.
The facility also houses offices, a custom paint booth, a showroom, and a warehouse.
Xenith’s athlete-centric philosophy doesn’t stop at safety. It designs for needs that transcend protection, pushing the boundaries of fit, feel, comfort, durability, performance, and style.
“The football helmet marketplace is full of orthodoxy and tradition,” McPhail says. “From an equipment standpoint, it’s hard to differentiate and make headway — and when you have a new technology, there’s that apprehension of not wanting to be the guinea pig. It was certainly an uphill battle because of how different the approach was, but the results of the testing proved it out and adoption (of the helmets) began to increase as more people became aware.”
According to Xenith, it’s the only manufacturer to exclusively design and produce 5-Star helmets under the widely accepted Virginia Tech star system. Other companies have 5-Star helmets, but they also produce 4-Star, 3-Star, and 2-Star products. The Xenith philosophy is that if a helmet doesn’t excel under the most stringent testing available, it shouldn’t be on the field.
Considering the challenge to convert established players and programs to new equipment, Xenith is taking the approach of marketing to youth teams and leagues, in the hope that players will carry brand loyalty with them if they move up through the football ranks.
One element of this strategy is sponsorship of the Kickoff Classic, which pits the best high school teams in the metro Detroit area against each other in the opening weekend of the season at Wayne State University.
“That’s a relationship that’s several years old now,” McPhail says. “Anytime that we have an opportunity to partner with a Detroit-facing entity — whether it’s the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan or the Detroit Public Schools — it certainly pays dividends in terms of our support of the community. And we’ve been able to convert some of the high schools that participate in the Kickoff Classic to Xenith products.”
Along with football helmets, Xenith sells shoulder pads and accessories like chin straps, visors, face masks, back plates, rib guards, and gloves.
One of those products, the company’s new Velocity shoulder pads, are injection-molded to provide a more custom fit around the athlete. “It’s a pad that conforms to the player’s body and allows him (or her) to move more freely with one less pound of weight,” McPhail says.
Xenith also recently entered the team apparel space by offering fully custom uniforms for tackle and non-tackle leagues, including protective headwear for flag football teams. “That’s a category that’s seen fairly rapid growth since it was launched in 2020,” McPhail says. “It’s a market that’s opened some doors for us that weren’t helmet or shoulder pad customers.”
Since most NFL and college teams already are outfitted by other major national brands, Xenith is targeting high school varsity and under programs.
The most notable high school team wearing Xenith is IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., one of the most elite high school football programs in the country. At the collegiate level, Jackson State University, coached by former NFL star Deion Sanders, is a Xenith school.
“NFL players are the most idiosyncratic and superstitious about their helmets and are least likely to make the switch,” McPhail says. There are exceptions, though, like Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots and Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns.
As proof that Xenith’s helmet technology is the future of football head protection, it recently was awarded a $496,500 grant from the NFL (one of three companies to receive funds) as part of the league’s two-year, $3-million innovation competition to drive transformational change in helmet safety and performance.
Xenith’s submission was a modular prototype that incorporates a compliant shell, a 3-D-printed lattice carrier, energy control structures made from RHEON-engineered material for both geometry and material chemistry, and customizable Kinetix foam inserts for improved helmet performance and comfort.
NFL Helmet Challenge submissions achieved up to a 13 percent improvement above the top-performing helmet currently worn in the NFL, based on the laboratory testing the NFL and NFL Players Association use to test and rank helmets each year. This rate of improvement represents more than four times what is typically seen annually in new helmet designs.
“The NFL Helmet Challenge is about revolutionary, not just evolutionary, improvement,” says Jeff Miller, executive vice president of communications, public affairs, and policy, for the league. “The NFL set out to challenge the marketplace and accelerate development of new technologies. We’re proud to support the awardees and advance player health.”
In addition, the Xenith Shadow XR and Shadow were tested by the league and are among 20 helmets approved for use by NFL players at a time when the sport is ascending.