Eagles tight end Zach Ertz with his mom Lisa, (center), and wife, Julie.
Back when her boys played football—one is still competing and is a key member of the Philadelphia Eagles— Lisa Ertz used to place both hands over her eyes and peek through her fingers when there was an on-the-field collision.
“I always say, I watch games through my finger goggles,” Ertz, whose son, Zach, is a star tight end with the Eagles, said in an interview just before the NFL season started. “It’s never easy, but you know your kids are really loving it out there, and I want other moms to say, ‘This isn’t my first choice, but he loves it and, boy, do I feel a lot safer.’”
Ertz is all about football safety, which is why she has become a spokesperson for Defend Your Head, a Chester Springs, Pa., company that makes a helmet cover called ProTech that protects players from head injuries. Nationally, about 300 teams are using them, including a dozen youth and high school programs in the Philadelphia area.
“Our focus,” Ertz said, “is to get every single high school team in Philadelphia wearing ProTechs.”
Zach Ertz is the oldest of Lisa’s four sons. One of her other sons, Shane, had a promising football career cut short by several concussions when he was in high school. The last one brought an ambulance onto the football field to take him to the hospital after he was knocked out cold while playing a game in California.
That led to Lisa Ertz to become a safety advocate for football players of all ages—specifically, trying to protect them from head injuries.
Until last year, she had been president of the Vicis Foundation, which promoted and funded safer football equipment, including a helmet that gave slightly upon impact. Vicis, a startup company based in Seattle, had developed a pricey, technologically advanced helmet that Ertz called “beautiful.”
“Sadly, Vicis is no longer in business,” she said, noting it went through bankruptcy and closed its doors last December. “They engineered the most beautiful piece of technology of a helmet available.”
“The first time I saw the helmet, I literally cried because I could (imagine) Zach’s head in the helmet and it was clear that the technology would reduce the effect of an impact,” she said. “It was extremely well done; however, just like when a medicine first comes out, it’s extremely expensive because of all the research that goes into it. So this beautiful Vicis helmet and technology cost was $1,500 per helmet when it first came out. Their market was the NFL in the beginning. They brought me on as sort of a ‘mom mouthpiece’ to use my voice to talk about safety.”
The problem: The helmets’ high cost made it virtually impossible for school districts to afford, let alone high school players.
“So I was named the head of their foundation and tasked with raising money to buy these helmets for the schools we focus on for our [Ertz Family] Foundation—basically North Philly and West Philly,” she said.
She has since become involved with Defend Your Head, a startup company that is gaining momentum.
At Defend Your Head, Ertz serves as director of safety alliance. According to the company, approximately 9,000 ProTech helmet covers are being used.
“I work for them as a mom with deep experience,” she said. “Four sons. Single mom. My boys all played football. I sat on many, many, many bleachers. So I’m a passionate voice of what Defend Your Head is doing.”
Lisa’s primary focus is the Ertz Family Foundation (EFF), which was founded by Zach and his wife, Julie, a dominant defender on the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. As EFF’s executive director, Lisa is charged with delivering the foundation’s mission, which is currently focused on making sure inner-city children have access to football fields—American football and globally—and helping them find opportunities beyond the field.
“I moved to Philly last year to work with the foundation. I love doing it,” said Ertz, a former California resident. And, also, to “make sure I never missed a home game, and here we are, all missing home games” because of the coronavirus.
She is just as enamored with her position at Defend Your Head and its ProTech shell that provides an absorbable outer later for the helmet. The shell snaps into the helmet. It’s being used by high schools and more than twenty Division I colleges, and the NFL is doing testing on it, Ertz said.
“Our focus,” she said, “is on high schools.”
Over the years, football players have been getting concussed at all levels, sprouting countless lawsuits. According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, between 1.7 million and three million sports and recreational-related concussions occur each year. Around 300,000 occur in football, UPMC said.
Vicis, the since-closed company, tried hard to reduce the numbers.
“Vicis was the first company to say, ‘Hold on here. We need to design a helmet that is made to replicate a car bumper, where the bumper absorbs a majority of the impact,’” Ertz said. “They took that technology and designed a football helmet to basically absorb the energy of the hits before it got to the brain, so the brain wasn’t shaking as much.”
Defend Your Head’s advanced technology offers a less-expensive alternative. The helmet covers cost about $100 apiece.
“We have on-the-field data with Penn State that shows the force of the hit can be absorbed up to 70 percent,” Ertz said of the polyurethane product’s success.
A three-year independent study conducted by Penn State showed that ProTech was a primary factor in reducing traumatic head impact to the Nittany Lions players who were tested.
Penn State’s research team used ProTech’s soft-shell technology with helmet sensors to monitor collision impact. Defend Your Head said there was a 72 percent reduction per player each week in high-intensity impacts to the head.
Ertz is “absolutely” convinced that her son, Shane, would not have suffered a concussion in a high school football game if he was wearing the ProTech atop his helmet.
“It would have absolutely absorbed the hit,” she said, adding she believes her son was wearing a helmet that did not fit him properly, which she said is a rather common issue among high school teams.
Football is a “lifeline to kids” around the country, and many of them “don’t have access to other sports because they don’t have the funds,” she said. “Their parents can’t afford to put them on a pay-to-play soccer team or a pay-to-play baseball showcase team. Turning sports into pay-to-play has really, really negatively affected the ability for kids in the inner city to play. And it many cases [sports] is all they have, so our focus has always been, ‘How do we take football and that crucial lifeline it gives?’—and I’m not talking about you ending up going to Stanford and ending up in the pros. That’s what Zach has done and it’s nothing short of incredible.
“It’s just not that,” she added. “It’s the relationships you build in high schools; it’s the mentors you had in high school. It’s all the amazing things in football that go away for a lot of kids in the inner city because they don’t have the money. They don’t have the funded programs. So our focus with the foundation is the keep football in the inner city and be a vibrant part of their lives, and my part with Defend Your Head is my own, personal mom-to-mom thing with a product that is affordable, and we’ll actually help you afford it if we can.”
The Ertz Family Foundation and the Eagles replaced all the football equipment—worth $10,000—that was stolen from Kensington’s High’s shed in 2018. The EFF has funded several flag football teams in North Philadelphia, and it is working on a project called Beyond the Field that is helping high school players get tutors and teaching them about opportunities beyond football.
In addition, the foundation is working with ten North Philadelphia high schools that had football taken away because of the coronavirus and creating a program that will have as many as 150 participants.
Running the foundation and being an advocate for football players’ safety has given Ertz an extremely busy work week.
She isn’t complaining.
“I think I’m doing what I was put in the world to do, really take the messaging [from Zach and Julie] and run through the wall with it,” Ertz said in mid-September. “It’s been wonderful.”