Inventor pushes forward with helmet latch

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Jim Wegener, creator of the Wegener Latch, is still working toward getting patent approval for his innovative football helmet latch that’s becoming popular with teams across the country.

Jim Wegener can hardly move around his house because of the football helmets.

He’s not a hoarder or anything like that; his house is getting cluttered because football coaches and equipment managers keep giving him helmets to show off on his website.

Wegener, of Kalispell, the creator of the Wegener Latch, has put more than a few miles on his car while traveling around the country showing off his football invention. It was approved as a valid piece of equipment by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I was told by a coach at Penn State that they’re going to be a required product on all football helmets in a few years.”

The invention, a sliding latch that keeps football helmets firmly attached to the wearer’s head, is a lightweight metal piece and incredibly simple. Wegener’s own medical background as a nurse at Rocky Mountain Heart and Lung helped him see the necessity of a solution to helmets popping off during play.

“Safety is a top concern,” he said. “The NFL has lost millions of dollars with lawsuits. Now it is turning toward college and high school. They are trying to nip it in the bud.”

Obviously, monetary influences aren’t the only reason for change. As concussion awareness increases, coaches, medical professionals and helmet manufacturers are scrambling to keep players’ brains safe.

This changing tide toward head injuries could explain why Wegener was invited to the annual American Football Coaches Association expo in Indianapolis. It might also explain how he collected 400 contacts during the 2 1/2 days there.

One of these contacts was Darrell Hazell, coach of the Purdue University Boilermakers. All of Purdue’s linemen will be sporting the Wegener latch on their helmets during spring football.

But not everything has gone so well for Wegener.

“My patent lawyer said it still might be a year until we hear back from the patent office,” he said. “And then they might say no and I’ll have to file again.”

After taking a tour of the Pacific-12 Conference, Wegener received bad news about his R-2 prototype. It had been broken in practice at Central Washington University and Colorado State University. He quickly recalled every latch he had given out and replaced them, for free, with the improved R-3.

His manufacturing partners in Polson, High Tech Industrial, improved the design where it had cracked.

“We now guarantee against breakage,” Wegener said. “We don’t know how long they will last, but we are guaranteeing them for three to five years.”

He said the response was unexpected but very much welcomed. Media outlets nationwide ran his story, propelling him quickly into the minds of football coaches nationwide.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has been a vocal supporter of Wegener since he first called there. When the Huskers bounced a Hail Mary off the hands of Northwestern University defenders to Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp this season to win 27-24, the inventor was on the sidelines.

“This linebacker rushes over to me, takes his helmet off and shakes my hand,” Wegener said. “He said this was the best invention since football itself.”

While excitable college praise is happily accepted, more telling are the schools wanting Wegener to come down to their campus. His next trip will hit every state east of the Mississippi River.

He might have to buy a second house just to hold his helmets.

Reporter Ryan Murray may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at rmurray@dailyinterlake.com.

Helmets from around the country which have begun using the Wegener Helmet Latch including the University of Nevada Reno Wolf Pack, the first school to order latches for their entire team.

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