A chandler teen took his love for football and turned it into a national project that earned him second-place honors and $2,000 toward. STEM camp of his choice next summer.
JT Mulvihill, a 14-year-old freshman at Arizona College Prep’s Erie campus, received high praises from judges at the Broadcom Masters, a premier science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) middle school competition for his helmet liner design that helps reduce the impact a football player receives when taking a blow to the head during competition. The project, which was presented remotely due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, landed Mulvihill with a $2,500 check he can use toward any STEM camp he desires.
Mulvihill said it’s very likely he put the money toward a marine biology camp, something he’s been interested in most of his life having spent summers in New Jersey.
“I love marine biology, I basically grew up near the ocean,” Mulvihill said. “I never thought I would really get that far in the competition, I was nervous. But once it came down to explaining everything, I was fine. It was a fun experience.
Mulvihill began researching for the project two years ago. The majority of the first year was spent deciding which material he would use. The second year was widely spent sourcing the liner. He did all this while becoming fully blind in his left eye due to a connective tissue disorder.
Before losing his vision, it was always common to see Mulvihill with a football in his hand or playing. He grew up loving the sport and had a natural talent for it. But his disorder forced him to walk away from the game entirely.
Mulvihill said because it’s a tissue disorder, it’s highly likely playing football and receiving blows to the head — even minor ones that didn’t result in concussions — fast-tracked his vision loss in his left eye. Mulvihill said it’s likely only a matter of time before he loses vision in his right eye as well, but he’s not letting that affect his day-to-day life.
“I have to make the most of it,” Mulvihill said. “I don’t know when or if it will happen. It could come later, or it could come sooner. I just have to continue to pursue what I want to do.”
Mulvihill is still part of the football program at Arizona College Prep.
Coach Myron Blueford welcomed him with open arms and noticed right away in non-contact drills how talented Mulvihill was when he was able to play.
“He started going through conditioning drills and at first I thought, “are you sure you’re allowed to be doing this?’” Blueford said. “But you could see in his footwork that he knew what to do and did it well. He’s part of this team like everyone else.”
His love and desire to remain around football helped fuel Mulvihill’s energy to tirelessly research a one-of-a-kind helmet liner that will reduce the impact of a blow to the head and perhaps prolong the careers of those playing. Mulvihill said he hopes it’ll also reduce the chances of former players developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease commonly found in football players and other athletes with a history of head trauma or concussions.
CTE has been linked to suicides by former athletes long after their careers had concluded. It has also been linked dementia and other similar brain disorders.
Mulvihill sourced the gelastic polymer from a local company. It’s thick, yet absorbing material has the ability to absorb high-impact contact and spread it evenly throughout the rest of the material, minimizing the amount that would instead affect an athlete’s brain. The same material is often found in bullet proof vests.
“It’s like a rock hitting the water ripple effect,” Mulvihill said. “It will evenly disperse the impact. This is one of the materials out there that can eliminate impact force reduction so drastically that people will feel safer playing.”
Mulvihill said he was honored to place second in the national competition for his project, but his work is far from over.
He plans to continue perfecting the helmet liner, eventually finding a solution that would allow it to be place underneath the paint surface or as a second layer between the padding and shell. Mulvihill said he also plans to partner with a helmet manufacturer sooner rather than later to begin testing the liner for its effectiveness.
His long-term goal is mass produce a perfected liner that will hopefully begin allowing those like him to safely play the game and for a longer period of time.
“I hope this helps kids like me be able to play,” Mulvihill said. “There’s still lots of adjustments and lots of tests to be run by several different people for this to be approved. But I’m confident it will work out.”