Conshohocken’s Brain-Pad is favored safety device of many athletes
By Gary Puleo, The Times Herald Newspaper
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
CONSHOHOCKEN — The basic concept hasn’t changed drastically since a Philadelphia dentist came up with an invention to keep a headstrong boxer’s jawbone from shattering in the ring back in the ’80s.
But it took the ingenuity of entrepreneur Joe Manzo in 2005 to give Dr. Ed Williams’ innovative handmade mouthpiece a catchy name, tweak its design with a fresh patent, prove its effectiveness in biomechanical tests, and get it onto Walmart shelves and into the mouths of countless amateur and pro athletes.
“Doctor Williams had a lot of patients who were professional boxers, and Jesse Ferguson was one of them,” said Manzo in the Fayette Street offices of Brain-Pad Inc. “Ferguson came to Williams and said ‘I got a serious problem and you have to help me out with it.’”
It seemed that every time Ferguson would take a jab to the left side of his jaw the brunt would cause him to regurgitate, right there in the ring.X-rays revealed that a piece of jawbone had chipped off and would hit a particular nerve whenever he was punched, causing him to lose his lunch. Williams advised the stubborn pugilist to find another career, but with a million-dollar fight on the horizon, Ferguson was adamant about remaining in the ring.
“He told him, ‘If that chip hits your carotid artery, you’re dead,’” Manzo said.
“So what Doc ended up doing was building him an upper and lower appliance that, once it was clenched in the mouth, would lower the jaw, creating a little space. So when he would take a hit, the appliance didn’t slam back into his skull.”
The device “worked great” in Ferguson’s next bout with Mike Tyson, Manzo recalled.
“A jaw joint protector like that is important because the jawbone is about the width of a potato chip, and when you take a hit to the jaw it’s very easy to fracture it and it throws a lot of impact energy into the brain,” he explained. “That’s why every boxer, every Marine, every MMA guy, knows the easiest way to take a guy out is to drive his jaw into the base of the skull.”
Williams advised his patient to continue wearing the mouthpiece as he hastened to get the first patent on his apparatus.
Manzo, who’d been a big-time distributor for home products like space heaters, ceiling fans and barbecue grills — “When Home Depot and Lowe’s came into our territory my customers like Hechinger’s, Rickel’s, Mr. Good Buys were gone” — came on board in 1996 when Williams and partner Bill Whitney decided to create a corporation and usher the product — then bearing the inscrutable name of Wipss — onto the market.
“We knew this thing had to be on the retail shelf and we had to get this out to the public. Williams had been making these things by hand, then found a manufacturer, Proto Cast, in Douglassville, where they were made for the first five or six years.”
Manzo, who became CEO and president in 2005, following Williams’ departure from the company, ultimately re-christened the product Brain-Pad and landed a deal with a Taiwan company to manufacture the re-designed, newly patented jaw protector that he upgraded with new materials and comfort components.
“You can see why I changed the name,” Manzo said, laughing. “Nobody knew what Wipps meant, and we felt that Brain-Pad would get their attention. The product is also protecting the brain when someone takes a blow.”
The Brain-Pad’s dual-arch mouth guards gives it a distinct advantage over competitors’ models, Manzo pointed out.
“Unlike an upper-only mouth guard, the Brain-Pad has two channels, upper and lower. You boil it in water for 30 seconds for the fitting, and when you sink your teeth into it, your jawbone moves slightly forward and down, creating a space, so when you take blows to the jaw or the face mask, the impact forces are not driving up to the base of the skull.”
While you’re in the clenched position, you breathe normally through a tiny hole, Manzo said of the product, available along with a full line of Brain-Pad safety products, through wholesalers and retailers, as well as distributors, contact sports leagues, school teams and www.brainpads.com.
“We cover all price points, for heavy contact sports down to low-profile sports like lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, in youth and adult models and a female-specific model line that is a bit softer,” Manzo said.
A longtime relationship with Walmart has kept two Brain-Pad models ($10 and $16) on the shelves in 3,650 stores across the country.
“Just like any other mass merchant they deal with, you’re never guaranteed one year to the next whether you’re still going to be there or not,” Manzo allowed, adding that a deal was in the works that could see Brain-Pad products going into every Walmart store at some point.
“When that happens, the national ads will just say, ‘Go to your local Walmart,’ ” he said. “It’s a pretty big deal for us.”
Brain-Pad Inc. is the only mouth guard manufacturer that has extensive data from three independent barometrical studies that demonstrate its effectiveness in reducing impact force to the base of the skull, Manzo noted.
“In 2005, when I became president, I scraped up enough funds to duplicate an earlier test done in 1993 that was sponsored by the NFL Charities and NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment). We showed up to 40 percent decrease in impact forces to the skull when wearing a Brain-Pad.”
In 2011, another test, sponsored by the NFL, measured the velocity of forces on football helmets in all manner of scenarios, including with Brain-Pad, a couple of generic competitors’ models and no protection at all, again put Brain-Pad well ahead of the pack. “That test was 100 percent funded by the NFL. I never knew anything about it,” Manzo said. “They never called and asked me for any product. Only the Brain-Pad reduced the impact forces. My opinion is they wanted to show that mouth guards are worthless, but we ruined their plans. I tried to contact the NFL 10 times after that but they never responded. Upper-only mouth guards accelerate forces, they don’t reduce them, and they were never made to. The NFL is right — all those other products are worthless … but ours sure ain’t.”
The NFL’s reluctance to acknowledge the Brain-Pad is due to fear of repercussions, Manzo allowed.
“They’re scared because we’re opening a can of worms for them. With all these NFL lawsuits going on, if the helmet manufacturers and the standards guys agree that there is major trauma going on and they need to do something about it, you’re going to have guys from 10 years ago (coming forward) saying they never were told about the effects. But sooner or later it’s going to come out. Somebody’s going to say, ‘the NFL’s known about this for 20 years and they didn’t do anything.”
The Brain-Pad did have one unsolicited endorsement not long ago from former Eagles fullback Owen Schmitt, Manzo recalled.
“He used Brain-Pad in high school, his whole college career, played for Seattle for three years wearing a Brain-Pad, got drafted by the Eagles and never played without wearing it. I have a million pictures of him with it. He’s never had a concussion, this slamming fullback through college and pro teams, and when he was interviewed by TV news they asked him what he attributed it to.”
Schmitt sited a couple of preventative measures, which Manzo was happy to point out: “Doing a lot of neck exercises … and always wearing a Brain-Pad.”