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Park HS football blazes player safety trail: 'Someone's got to be the first, and it might as well be us'

When the Park High football team takes the field at TCO Stadium Thursday, they'll be the first team in the state — maybe even the country — to play in Guardian Caps.

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — History in Minnesota will be made on Thursday night when the Park Cottage Grove football team becomes the first in the state, maybe in the country, to wear the Guardian Cap, a protective shell over the helmet, during a real game. 

Right now, a few football programs in Minnesota wear them during practice, but Park plans to take it a step further in the name of player safety.

The heat forced the Park football players indoors last week, and for head coach Rick Fryklund, the safety of his players is always top of mind. That's why, over the past three years, he's invested over $11,000 into the Guardian Cap. 

The cap, each costing around $70, is a 7-ounce, foam-padded protective shell for football helmets. Every player in the Park program, from varsity all the way down to sixth grade, wears the Cap during practice.

“Significant investment?" KARE 11's Randy Shaver asked.

“Absolutely," said coach Fryklund. "We're doing things to keep the game safer for our kids — football needs to do those things.”

If the Caps look familiar, it might be because you've seen the Vikings wear them in practice this month. Just this year, the NFL mandated Guardian Caps for all teams and all players — at all times — during practice.

“To be completely frank, if they didn't work and they didn't keep people safer, I really don't think the NFL would be mandating what they are,” said Fryklund.

The Cap doesn't prevent concussions, but they do, it seems, lessen the impact on the brain by 33 percent, according to the company. 

Park High doesn't have hard data to prove that, but the science makes sense to those who treat athletes.

“When you think about the way a concussion happens, it's because your brain is floating inside your skull, and when you get hit or you experience a whiplash, it bounces around inside your skull," said Mel Haupt, Park's athletic trainer. "So, if we can add something on top of it to absorb some of that force, less force is going to get transmitted through the helmet, through your skull, and then into your brain to cause it to move around and slosh around inside.”

That simple science is why Fryklund decided to take team safety to the next level by wearing the Guardian Cap during games.

“Someone's got to be the first, and it might as well be us,” said Fryklund.

The National Federation of High Schools sent KARE-TV a statement saying, "The NFHS does not endorse products, including the Guardian Cap, but it has determined that permissive use of this product is not a violation of NFHS football rules." 

The Minnesota State High School League followed suit, saying in part, “…the choice to wear this helmet attachment is left to each of our member schools.”

Rick said his players are all for it, even if the Guardian Cap looks kind of silly.

“I expect people are going to just kind of poke fun of how it looks, but they don't understand that it really helps keep us safe and we don't even notice is on our heads," he said. "And we don't care what it looks like, we care about being safe,” said David Laturnus, Park senior defensive lineman.

“The over-under is a thousand emails that first week that you're about to get saying how stupid it looks. But again, we keep kids safer. I'm all for that,” said Fryklund.

“Do you intentionally take more risks because you're wearing that, or how do you approach the game when you've got that on your head?" asked Randy.

“I think some people could, but I don't really notice when it's on my head at all. I just play; I'm playing the game and I don't really pay attention to the Guardian Cap or whatever I do. It's just — it's just on my head. I play the game the same way I would if I didn't have it on," said Skyler Morgan, Park senior running back.

On Thursday night, Aug. 31, Park High will open the football season against district rival East Ridge at the Vikings' TCO Stadium practice facility in Eagan. In the past, that matchup would have looked like any other in Minnesota. 

But not this one.

Not when Park High takes the field wearing Guardian Caps on their helmets, perhaps becoming the spark that changes the game in Minnesota.

“You're going to be the guinea pigs,” said Randy. 

“I will be the guinea pig, and if I'm the first for player safety and our student-athletes are the first for player safety, I'm totally fine with being the first person,” said Fryklund.

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