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Carbon Copy

New shoulder pads made from high-tech materials lighten the load while spreading the impact

SHOULDER PADS are a little like office carpeting: You don't really think about how either could be better, you simply accept them for their functionality and move on. Russell Athletic is tearing up the carpet.

Unlike standard, rigid, one-piece shoulder pads, CarbonTek pads, the Bowling Green, Ky., company's first shoulder protection, are composed of a carbon-fiber exoskeleton fitted over a dual-density foam vest. The two pieces detach so each unit can be custom-fit, and players can opt to wear only the inner layer for light protection during noncontact drills.

Rattling and bouncing shoulder pads have long been part of football's soundtrack, but the CarbonTek vest compresses against the torso so snugly that it doesn't move while the player is in action. There are also two layers of a protective, impact-absorbing foam—the kind often used in the crumple zones of cars—the softer of which sits against the body. The fabric and foam are treated to improve odor resistance and moisture wicking, while vents release heat. (The company says the pads disperse heat 20% better than standard options.)

The carbon shell covers more area than typical shoulder pads, and its thickness varies to make the pads stiffer in high-impact areas while reducing the overall weight—CarbonTek pads are about 10% lighter than standard. The shell's increased area creates a larger surface for the energy of a hit to dissipate through, and holes in the foam provide flex that breaks the energy wave and channels it away from the body.

So, does this unique design work? Dr. Richard Brandt, president of New York--based Sports Science, Inc. and a former physics professor at NYU, placed the CarbonTek on torso models and ran impact tests that slammed the pads with a 600-pound weight. The tests included two competitive brands, and Brandt says CarbonTek outperformed the others, providing a 63% reduction in the average force felt through the system. Which leaves one question: Is there a CarbonTek office floor covering?



A light outer shell keeps the weight at less than 2.5 pounds.


An inner vest fits snugly and weighs as little as 1.3 pounds.