As the Culver Eagles don their gear for the first regular season football game at Tippecanoe Valley Friday, it’s understandable if they have other things on their minds than the science behind their helmets.
But their Culver forebearers 85 years ago, when Richard C. Schneider `31 passed through the Iron Gate, would have been fascinated – and possibly a bit envious – at today’s improvements over the simple leather headgear worn on the gridiron across the nation in those days.
It happens that those improvements were made possible by their classmate, Dr. Richard C. Schneider, the neurosurgeon credited with the co-invention of the modern football helmet.
Schneider, Culver’s 1969 Graduate of the Year, said his avocation for a new helmet design aimed at prevention and treatment of athletic injuries, stemmed from his Culver football experience and from his membership on the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Michigan.
As noted in an article on Schneider’s work in the Spring/Fall 2006 issue of the Culver Alumni Magazine, “Today’s helmets generally use a lexan, polycarbonate shell, a very resilient material. Single face bars appeared in the 1950s and have since grown into elaborate cages, and the single chin strap has given way to double snaps.
“Air suspension in the helmet interior withstands repeated blows better than helmets that use foam pads, and the full facemask gives superior nose, jaw, and oral protection.”
With football-related head injuries have taken on a new life in recent years, studies have shown that players wearing helmets with the technology stemming from Schneider’s research are considerably less likely to suffer concussions and other game-related head injuries than in years past.
Schneider told the Culver Alumnus in 1969: “I like football. Sensationalism about injuries might scare youngsters and their families, which would have a devastating effect on this great game.
“An infinitesimally small number of fatalities occur when one considers that more than two and a half million people play football – from the sandlots to the pro ranks.”
After graduating from Culver, Schneider attended Dartmouth College (1935), earned an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1939, and in 1948, an M.S. degree from the University of Michigan.
While at Michigan, Schneider collaborated with world renowned neuroanatomist Dr. Elizabeth C. Crosby. He studied serious and fatal brain and spine injuries and published a detailed clinical and photographic study of players who died due to such injuries, recommending a number of specific changes in football helmets as a result. The resulting redesigns led to wide acclaim for Schneider and his co-designers.
Schneider’s Culver legacy has also been a lasting one. In addition to his Graduate of the Year honor, his wife Madeleine Thomas Schneider created a fund at Culver in his memory shortly after his death in 1986. When Madeleine passed away in 2005 at the age of 93, she bequeathed $5 million in unrestricted funds to Culver’s “By Example” campaign. In 2006, Schneider was inducted posthumously into Culver’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Madeline also donated to Culver a number of artifacts from her husband’s life and work. Several of those items are on display as part of a special exhibit this fall at the Culver Academies Museum & Gift Shop, 102 S. Main St., in downtown Culver.
The Schneider items join other notable Culver football items relating to the school’s legacy with the University of Notre Dame’s football program (including its close ties with legendary coach Knute Rockne). The exhibit also includes one of those less-than-protective leather football helmets, this one used at Culver circa 1925.
In the 1969 Alumnus, Schneider reflected on his Culver tenure, following some health and economic challenges at that point in his life: “The Culver experience overcame a complex of being behind all the time, of being too shy to get help. I got into Dartmouth College, where I got too involved in extra-curricular activities to be a good student.”
For an extensive look at Schneider’s Culver memories and post-Culver career, his 1969 interview in the Culver Alumnus Magazine can be read in full here.
The legacy of Dr. Schneider and his wife since then at Culver was the subject of another extensive article in the Culver Alumni Magazine of Spring/Fall 2006 issue (available here).