In the Cards: Mark Kelso

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By sharing some of the football cards from my collection, my goal is to put a spotlight on some defensive backs who may have become underrated or have been forgotten by history.

Mark Kelso, FS, Buffalo Bills (Pro Set 1991)

Let’s stop acting like concussion awareness is something brand-new to the NFL or to its players.

Way back in 1990, the league approved a special padded helmet attachment called a ProCap — known in some circles as a “gazoo helmet” — for a handful of players, most notably Buffalo Bills free safety Mark Kelso. The entire point of the ProCap was to reduce the risk of the user getting a concussion.

That was a quarter-century ago. And so the idea that the NFL and its players were blissfully ignorant about concussions until only recently is equal parts ignorant and inaccurate. Kelso may be the most obvious example of that.

Funky headgear aside, Kelso’s football career is a classic underdog success story.

He was the small guy (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) from the small college (William & Mary) who wasn’t chosen until the 10th round of the 1985 NFL Draft. He worked his way up from a bench-riding rookie to starting in all four of the Bills’ Super Bowl appearances in the ’90s. While Kelso was never voted to a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team, he was as much a mainstay on those great Buffalo teams as QB Jim Kelly, RB Thurman Thomas, DE Bruce Smith and WR Andre Reed.

In eight years as a pro, Kelso had 30 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. But he was probably known more for his unique look than his skills on the field.

The origin of Kelso’s ProCap is simple, yet scary.

During the ’88 and ’89 seasons, Kelso reportedly suffered four concussions. And yet he never missed a game. (By contrast, Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden suffered two concussions during the 2015 season and sat out 11 games as a result.)

Going into the 1990 season, a Bills trainer fitted Kelso with the 14-ounce ProCap and basically told him he had to wear it, or else he couldn’t play.

As a kid back then, I remember Kelso and that helmet. Even at a young age I understood the function of it, and I didn’t hold that against him. Not knowing Kelso’s concussion history, however, I did wonder why it was legal, since it seemed like it would give Kelso an unfair advantage.

In an article published last year in Crain’s Cleveland Business, Kelso recalls the initial reaction:

“It looked stupid. Absolutely stupid,” Kelso said during a “Confronting the Concussion Crisis” talk Tuesday night, April 29, at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

During Tuesday’s keynote address, Kelso told a story about how badly he was mocked by his Bills teammates during his initial practice wearing the ProCap. He said the first time Jim Kelly saw Kelso, lined up as a safety in a scrimmage against the Bills’ first-team offense, the former quarterback had to stop the play because he was laughing so hard at Kelso’s appearance.

When Kelso got home that night in 1990, his wife, Robin, asked him about his day.

“It was bad,” Kelso replied. “Really bad.”

To show her what he had endured, Kelso drove his wife to the Bills’ facility that night and donned the ProCap.
Robin Kelso laughed so hard she fell to the ground, Mark said.

And that was part of the problem with the ProCap, which never penetrated the NFL market the way Kelso and the technology’s inventor, Bert Straus, hoped it would.

“With football players, aesthetics wins out over safety every time,” Kelso said Tuesday night.

Kelso said only two other players wore the ProCap in those days — former 49ers left tackle Steve Wallace, an All-Pro selection in 1992, and Randy Dixon, a guard who started 110 games for the Colts in a nine-year career that concluded in 1995.

During the four years in which he wore the ProCap, Kelso said he only had one concussion — a small number considering his previous history of head injuries, and considering that he was a small guy playing a position that is traditionally involved in some of the game’s most violent collisions.

The ProCap that helped protect Kelso’s brain is no longer on the market, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

As far back as 1995, ProCap’s inventor was still pitching the product to the NFL’s concussion committee which, yes, existed back in 1995. The league never outright banned the ProCap, but it did send a memo to its players in which the league said the ProCap presented a risk of “catastrophic neck injuries.” (Kelso never had a significant neck injury.) The NFL’s official helmet partner, Riddell, spread the same concerns among its college and youth football partners.

As recently as last year, Kelso — who coached football for 17 years after retiring as a player in 1994 and now does radio analysis for the Bills — was still active in the movement to reduce concussions in football. He is involved in efforts to develop padded helmet covers similar to the ProCap and does public speaking engagements about football and head injuries.

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