Ever since I began covering uniforms, specifically Auburn uniforms, I have been given many wonderful opportunities, mainly in the meeting of some great people from twitter. I've been on two different great Auburn podcasts and another radio show. There's been a few small perks that have popped up as well. But the biggest opportunity that's presented itself to me thus far was the chance to review Russell Athletic's new CarbonTek shoulder pad system. Along with that came the chance to interview Sarah Gholston, the VP of Design and Development at Russell Athletic. I was graced with a good half hour of her time and this is how that interview went.
Tell me about yourself and how you came to work for Russell and got your position of VP of Design and Development?
It's a long journey - I don't know if you have that much time. I am the Vice President of Design, Development and Merchandising for Russell Athletic. I have worked with Russell and the Bike Athletic Brand since I got out of college. So I've been doing this for 20 years. I've done a lot of things within the company and sports industry.
Tell me about how these pads came to be. What was the whole process behind the drawing board and implementation?
Russell Athletic has been around since 1902, and we have a very, very deep history with football apparel, specifically on the field uniforms. We wanted to expand our football product offering, and expand into protection, specifically shoulder pads. And we had had this conversation for a while, and we knew when we made the transition into the shoulder pad market that we wanted to do it with something that matched all the innovation with the uniform market. We didn't want to just come out with a shoulder pad with different colored plastic - we wanted to build a shoulder pad that actually helped the athlete perform better.
So what we did was we started with a clean slate - we pretended we had never seen a shoulder pad before. We actually worked with Dana Marquez, equipment manager at Auburn, and we started kicking around ideas and concepts on how to look at the shoulder pad differently. So we talked about a lot of different things, but what we wanted to do was enlist the help of people in different businesses that had never worked with sporting goods before. We wanted to do that for two reasons - we wanted to be extremely open minded and didn't want to be tainted with what was already there. We also wanted it to be extremely proprietary. We wanted to build something that would really be a difference maker and we didn't really want to share it with anyone.
So what we decided to do is, we had an initial concept for a foam piece that would be the initial base layer of the CarbonTek shoulder pads. And so what we did was we contacted a tier one automotive supplier - a foam manufacturer specifically - cause we thought "who knows more about impacts that the automotive industry and all the guys up in Detroit". So we worked with their chemists and engineers to really refine the shape of the foam that goes into the vest portion of the CarbonTek shoulder pads. And really what we came up with was this oblate spheroid shape [think egg-crate bed foaming - CR], or kind of circular shape, about the size of a golf ball. And what that does for us, by making that rounded shape, which gives more surface interest to the pads, so the dispersion of the energy has more space to travel.
We worked with them on the foam production. We do have a dual vented foam that goes into the CarbonTek vest. Also in there is a hole that goes through the middle of the foam shape as well. So, that not only aides in ventilation and heat relief, but what it also does, when the player gets impacted, that impact has energy, that energy has a greater surface interest to travel over the foam shape, and the hole also helps relieve that energy. So it's multipurpose. We've also injected into the foam polygene technology, which is an anti-microbial - with staph infections always a concern in locker rooms, so we wanted to address those issues. That was really the start of the oblate spheroid shape, and then we connected all of these these shapes together into a sheet, and created a compression vest.
What that does is allows the athlete to get 360 degrees of coverage. And it's tight to the body. So imagine a compression shirt with protective foam in it. And that allows no breaks in the body. There is no space between the actual protection unit and the body itself. So that gives the player a lot more comfort, a lot more range of motion, and it also creates a much lower profile pad for the athlete - much lower to the body.
So we built this great vest (laughs) and all these great characteristics to it, and we don't want to go ruin this pad by putting plastic on top of it. So we again went back to our tier one automotive supplier and tried to look at different substrates we could use for the exoskeleton of the CarbonTek pads. And what we ended up with is that carbon fiber would be the best material to use. So in working with our carbon fiber manufacturer, we partnered with Boeing and we are actually repurposing the carbon fiber from their Dreamliner.
So it's kind of two fold - we have a sustainable story of repurposing of this carbon fiber from B, and also it works as an absolutely superior exoskeleton to compliment the vest that goes underneath. So what the carbon fiber does for us is it significantly reduces the weight of the pad itself, and it also gives us a lot more impact resistance as well, as the strength of the carbon fiber aides in the impact dispersion as well. So the other difference in the pad is that it's actually a system, not a single unit. What we have is the compression vest with OS technology foam and then we have the carbon fiber exoskeleton that goes on top of it so that these two pieces can be detached from each other. So it's a system itself, not just one unit. So it's very versatile. But the carbon fiber on top of it gives it an additional impact dispersion. So that's kind of how we pulled the pieces together.
I read online that these are supposed to be X-ray-able. Was that a goal in mind from the beginning or just a lucky coincidence?
It wasn't something we initially started out with on the board. Obviously the first thing we wanted to do was we wanted to create a pad with the impact dispersion always at the top of the list. The range of motion, the breathability, those were things that were at the top of mind at the beginning. But as we started selecting materials, we found that the materials were coming together for the pads were going allow it to be X-rayed through. Which, to a trainer, to a doctor, an equipment manager, that's a really big deal. And we really like that feature to it, because it allows the doctors and trainers to access the athlete and then make the decisions afterward and really don't have to move the player around.
What was Dana Marquez's (Auburn Equipment Manager) role in the development? Did he come to you guys are did you go to him?
Dana had approached us with an initial concept for a foam shape, and we collaborated with him from there. So that's when we brought in our tier one automotive supplier, the engineers, and those things. He had the initial concept of a version of the oblate spheroid that we've refined through the development process. Dana was a big part of this development from the very beginning. And the other part that is really invaluable that Dana brings to the table is his years of knowledge, not just in the equipment room but with athletes and shoulder pads and protective systems in general. So we were really able to incorporate him into the development process along with engineers, along with materials from our suppliers and our design team to kind of have all eyes looking on it from different angles. Dana was very important to this whole process.
How did you guys test these new pads? What did those initial tests show in regards to the strengths and weaknesses of this whole brand new system?
We took this in two ways - we did the actual field testing, which we did a lot of this at Auburn University, and we actually had them on players through practice and game situations. And then we knew we wanted to get some more lab testing and more data around these pads.
The struggle at the beginning of this development was that there is no standardized testing, unlike there is for helmets. There isn't a NOCSAE Standard for shoulder pads. We reached out to Dr. Richard Brandt, who is with Sports Science and Dr. Brandt has a very long resume in testing - he was a big part in the bat testing that has been going on for years. He developed that testing method. We reached out to him and threw a challenge him basically, that there isn't a testing method out there, so he could help us come up with something. We wanted it to be independent, so we commissioned it with him and he went out and created a whole testing method that would allow us to determine the impact dispersion or wave of the energy moving across the pad.
He built a whole system with sensors and we tested 500 mph impact and we compared the CarbonTek shoulder pads with the other leading pads on the market. And so what we really found through that testing is really significant impact dispersion of our pads. The player that is coming at you is still going to be coming with speed - unfortunately you don't get to slow them down. The whole goal of developing this pad was for when you do get hit, the surface area of the OS foam and of course the carbon fiber exoskeleton spreads that energy and disperses itself over the entire pad itself so the player feels less of it on their body.
We found significant results with our testing with Dr. Brandt and what was really fantastic, whenever you're doing lab testing and field testing simultaneously, the field testing was almost mimicking what we were seeing in the lab. So the athletes were saying "I know I'm getting hit. I'm not really feeling it in the exact location of where I'm getting hit." And that's the spreading of the energy over the pad. And they are recovering from the hit much faster.
Now the things that you can't tell on the lab testing that we got from the field testing was the information from the athletes that they had increased range of motion. Guys were telling us "Hey, when I'm tackling another player, I feel like I can wrap them up better because I have more extension in my arms and more range of motion." The fact that the carbon fiber shell itself is molded, whereas other modern pads when laid on a table lays flat, and you have to use a robust buckling system to create the arch in the pad that gives you protection, but the CarbonTek system is already molded into that shape. That also gives a lower profile to the body, the combination of the carbon fiber exoskeleton and the compression vest which fits very tight to the body. It's a lot harder for the opponent to grab. It's a lot harder for them to get a hold of your pads. The anti-microbial and the moisture management properties and ventilation properties that we incorporated into the pads give you a little bit more breathability as well.
Will these pads be specifically molded for certain players?
Nothing is off the table, and we are already working on the second and third generations of this pads, and we find all these great things we can add to it. One of the things that we do is that we have the option today to modify the vest. We do that a lot with Dana and the Auburn players. You may want to add a little more to the vest. You might want to extend it down to replace rib guards or a kick plate, some of those items. We can incorporate all those accessories into the vest itself. It does become a very customizable piece for the player. The beauty of the CarbonTek system is also the fact that it is in two pieces makes it very versatile. You can use this pad for every player position, and I think Auburn is a perfect example of that. We have it on pretty much every position on the field at Auburn today. Everything from quarterbacks to running backs to wide receivers to lineman. Every position has been covered.
Are there differences in the specific position pads or is it more of a "one-size fits all" piece at the moment?
Right now, what we are finding is that the way we have constructed the CarbonTek system is that you don't need as many options for different player positions, which adds a lot to the versatility of the pads. We have different options for different positions, but we have not seen players need that or request that as much. And we also have the tailoring that allows the different positions to do what they want for any other protection that they may need.
How many Auburn players wore these last year and how were they specifically chosen to test it out?
Last year we had about 11 or 12 all the way through the season that were being used in game situations and more so in practice. The selection of the athletes that had the opportunity to wear them was left up to Dana. Our conversations with him, it was a combination of the need and guys that wanted to step up and try something a little different. But that was really Dana and the coaching staff's call.
How many teams and players now wear the new pads?
We have really branched out into a lot of different schools. We also have our brand ambassadors - Mark Ingram, Pierre Garcon, and Colt McCoy (who's playing a lot right now) [They're big fans of Colt at Russell - CR]. So we've really expanded into a lot of ACC and SEC schools. We are only at Division 1 and NFL today.
The pads have grown really quickly in terms of production and number in play. What does that say about Russell and the quality of the new CarbonTek system?
I think it really tells us that there's a lot of room in the market for products that really enhance the player's performance. And I think that's what we've always been about at Russell Athletic - we want to help that athlete perform better. And I think there is always going to be a need out there for products and technology that helps these players recover faster. Give them advantages in game situations, and I think you see that in every sport. There's this opportunity and I think players are looking for that.
What is it like being a producer for only a handful of teams, whereas the other big three companies have a long list of teams that they provide for.
Russell Athletic is still the market share leader for football uniforms. Obviously there has been some changes at the Division 1 level with contracts and all of that. We do still have several schools that we work with. For us, it's a great opportunity to work with schools at every level and help them come up with their own image, their own design, but incorporate the very best materials and fit. I think that's been something, with over 100 years of experience, that we've been able to deliver a lot better than our competitors on the uniform side of the business. We are a manufacturer - we design and make and actually manufacturer our uniforms, and that truly is different from all the competitors. We have a lot of control from the design side, from the production side, that really allows us to give all these athletes and schools uniforms that I would say is much better than what they could find anywhere else.
Does Russell plan to expand more in Division 1 or do you plan to just concentrate on Georgia Tech and Southern Miss?
I think as we go forward we are evaluating every opportunity as it comes along. And if an opportunity comes along for us to be a partner with another school, we definitely always look at those opportunities. We evaluate them and if they work, we definitely want to continue.
How do you balance a team's traditional design with the modern technology and trends?
That challenge is for whoever the manufacturer is. You have a rich history in a lot of these programs that you don't want to walk away from some of the traditions that have been established at these universities. I think what we try to do with our partner schools, like a Georgia Tech, is really sit with the program at the beginning of the development cycle and try to understand what they want their identity and how they want to express that through their uniforms during the season. We try to do that at the very beginning. We want to stay true to their traditions but at the same time we want to give them the benefit of the technology and the fabric and the construction. We want to allow them to have the best uniform on the field. We try to balance those things with working with the teams, working with the coaches, working with the institutions with what they are trying to convey for the season. That helps us as a design and development team come up with something that pleases everybody's expectations.
Who gets the final yes or no say over a design?
It's probably different [for each program]. From our experience, we obviously have a lot to say from a design stand point, so we'd like to share that as well. But at the same time, we want to be a partner with our school. That's something we are very proud of. It's usually never one person, it's usually more of a collaboration. We've never found that to ever be a big issue.
Did Russell ever push Auburn to try a different alternate uniform like we've heard Under Armour has tried to do?
We were with Auburn for a very long time. I don't ever remember any kind of conversation in terms of pushing, again it was always more of a collaborative process. We would sit with the program at the beginning of the season and say "What would you like to accomplish this season with your uniforms?" and we usually work with them that way.
I will say, though, the trend is to have a lot of different uniforms. You can thank some other teams for that. It does help to get the fans excited, and I understand that. It's a very tough balance. Alternate uniforms are kind of the big thing. When Russell Athletic had Major League Baseball, we had a lot of teams that had up to six different uniforms. I understand that everyone wants to keep it fresh and exciting.
Any other projects going on over at Russell?
We are going to continue to expand our CarbonTek franchise. We are currently working on development in different categories of the same OS technology. We really are in an innovation mode right now. We are continually trying to come up with more products that are actually very differentiated to help the athletes perform better. We really pride ourselves on trying to stay very connected to the athletes, to the equipment managers, the people that are in there day-to-day, and try to help them solve their problems. We create products that can help the athlete, the equipment managers, the trainers and help them perform better. Those are the things we have been concentrating on here in the past two years.
I'd like to thank Walt for the opportunity, Matt Fox for setting everything up and helping with everything, and especially Sarah for being gracious enough to spend some time on the phone with me. I'm truly honored to be able to do something like this.
If you enjoyed this piece, and would like to see more like it, please take some time and visit my uniform blog - the Auburn Uniform Database. I do my best to cover each and every detail on the uniforms Auburn athletes wear. No detail is too small. Spend some time over there. You just might learn a thing or two.