Safety collar maker eyes youth sports

Dan Rickbeil, left, and Jeff Chambers with some of the Kato Collars. Photo by Pat Christman

At first, Mike Claflin’s teenage son didn’t appear worse for wear after the hit that jerked his heat back, tearing his football helmet off. But by the middle of the next day he had a headache and memory lapses, and Claflin knew his boy had a concussion.

As an assistant football coach at his son’s Oklahoma high school, he’d seen these head injuries before. But he’d never seen one as serious as this.

“He couldn’t stand the lights, he was stuck in a dark room for a week,” Claflin said. “As a parent, it was really scary.”

But he knew how much his son enjoyed playing football, so he searched the internet for protective equipment that could keep him on the field, safely. A Google search led him to the Kato Collar, and as he spoke with its owner, Jeff Chambers of North Mankato, it was the attitude of the man on the other line as much as the collar itself that led him to purchase one.

“I think he cares more about the kids than he does the product,” Claflin said of Chambers, who spent 18 years as a certified athletic trainer at Minnesota State University.

As for Claflin's son, the collar provided a sense of safety while preserving his neck’s range of motion.

“He won’t take that thing off for anything,” Claflin said.

Chambers’ Mankato-based company, Guardian Athletics, is growing quickly since shipping its first Kato Collar in late April. He’s focusing on college football, traditionally the testing ground for new equipment for both the NFL and youth athletics.

The Kato Collar has been sold to (or, in a handful of cases, given as a promotional item to) 44 of the 64 colleges that comprise the “Power Five” NCAA conference, the highest echelon of college football.

“When you see the product that we’ve developed on TV on some of these teams, it’s pretty cool,” Chambers says. The company also recently signed a deal with former NFL quarterback and CBS analyst Rich Gannon to help promote Guardian Athletic’s products.

But even as his company pitches colleges on his collar, Chambers is raising $1.5 million to develop a new, smaller version aimed at younger players.

Though there are plenty of potential customers at the collegiate level, perhaps 100,000, the number of players is like a pyramid organized by age — larger the younger you go. There are about a million high school football players in the U.S., and perhaps three times that in youth teams.

Though the Kato Collar is to some extent benefiting from the growing awareness of concussions, most of its users aren’t buying the collar for its head injury protection. Instead, they’re trying to prevent compressed or stretched nerves in the neck and shoulder, a painful injury called a “burner” or “stinger.”

As it moves to expand its distribution and add products, Guardian Athletics is moving from a startup to a scaled-up company. Like many young companies, it has yet to turn a profit and is relying on investors' money. Its future is uncertain. Will college and professional players use it, boosting its credibility? Will it catch on with coaches and parents?

Meanwhile, Chambers is all-in, having left his university job in fall 2017.

“I’d be lying if I told you there haven’t been moments when you’re a little bit scared,” he says, but adds that his faith has been helpful. “There are so many things out of your control that you trust in the Lord to get things done even through the setbacks and the things that happen that make you wonder if you’re going to make it.”

He also credits the company’s progress to full-time Chief Operating Officer Dave Norris and its part-time national sales director, Todd Tanhoff.

Reviving an old idea

Chambers first had the idea for the Kato Collar in 1997, when he was head athletic trainer at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He thought a padded collar could help one of his players prevent the hyper extension of the neck that damages nerves and causes burners.

A decade later, by then at MSU, Chambers shared his idea with a colleague, who used it as a project for entrepreneurship course. The business plan created by the class was one of three winners of a $5,000 Brian Fazio Business Creation Project award from Greater Mankato Growth.

Chambers went on to design five prototypes before securing two patents of a 12-ounce model in 2014 and 2018. He ditched the air pads, which cause kickback and were prone to rupture, in favor of thermoplastic elastomer, a rubber-like material.

The collar, which attaches to shoulder pads, is designed to slow down the head, reducing the forces that cause concussions and burners. Testing at a Maryland lab found the Kato Collar reduced the speed of the head by between 10 percent and 30 percent, depending on the direction and type of impact. It’s essentially like an airbag for the helmeted head.

Reducing speed is important to prevent concussions because the whiplash movement of the head after impact may cause more damage than the first hit.

But, for many players, the Kato Collar’s main selling point is preserving their neck's range of motion and their ability to scan the field and make big plays.

It was this ability to protect the player while offering them a full range of motion that drew athletic trainer Melissa Johnston to the Kato Collar. In her case, though, she had another reason to trust him.

Stingers no more

Johnston met Chambers in the ‘90s while she was a student at Oshkosh and credits him with her decision to become an athletic trainer.

“It was the passion he had for the athlete and getting them better and always to think outside the box,” she says. She now works with youth athletes in the small city of Berlin, in eastern Wisconsin.

When one of her players was experiencing arm pain from frequent burners that sometimes took him out of the game, she naturally considered her old friend’s collar. Other collars prevented the player from looking over his shoulder, but the Kato Collar preserved his range of motion.

Johnston says some schools can buy the collar directly, but in this case because the student wanted to take the collar to college so the boy’s family bought it.

Though he’s gotten a few burners since using the helmet, they’ve been much milder, with the pain lasting well under a minute.

“The concussion prevention is an extra benefit,” she says.

For now, most of Chambers' customers are buying the Kato Collar for burner protection because collars are the product typically associated with the injury. But, in the long term, Chambers expects concussion protection to be its main selling point with youth.

Though he’s been making some sales directly through the website — he also temporarily lowered the price, from $249 to $179 — Chambers has been raising his product’s profile.

Getting it out there

Starting last summer, he’s been working with three companies that distribute sports medical supplies to high schools and colleges. In September, he started a new promotional partnership with Gannon, the NFL player and TV analyst.

Though Gannon is being compensated for his advocacy, “He came on board because he really liked our product,” Chambers said. It’s also personal; Gannon’s NFL career ended as the result of a 2004 neck injury.

Chambers said his company is also in talks with a forthcoming football league, the Alliance of American Football, which has eight teams and plans to operate in the NFL’s off-season.

Both these moves, if successful, could raise his product’s profile but, again, the real market is in the youth. Parents will be interested in preventing concussions, he said, but even they aren’t the real gatekeeper.

“They’re usually looking for coaches to say what the best helmet and equipment is,” Chambers said. Develop credibility with these people, in other words, and sales are likely to follow.

The next major step for Guardian Athletics is to secure new funding to develop a youth collar.

“Capital is what keeps the machine running,” he said, adding that he hopes to reach profitability relatively soon.

“I would say there’s a good chance, if we can get to a youth and junior high collar, you can be making a profit in year three, maybe by the end of next year,” he says. They're focusing on football for now, but have other sports in mind, too. There are millions of skiers, snowboarders, mountain bikers and snowmobilers, and plenty of concussions to prevent.

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