NORFOLK -- For 19 years, no one played pro football with more intensity than Norfolk's Bruce Smith.
The league’s all-time sack leader and Virginia Tech standout says he’s had three concussions in his career- that he knows of.
Smith recently spent time as a volunteer coach at Cox High School in Virginia Beach, working with his son, Austin, and other student-athletes. He's trying to pass along the tools to play the game safely and educating kids about the risks.
Smith stresses to parents that a good helmet is the key to preventing a concussion or a traumatic brain injury.
“This is the single most important piece of equipment your son will wear,” Smith says.
He's concerned about what he sees on high school football fields across Hampton Roads- too many helmets that don’t fit properly, too many helmets that are too old or that are not being maintained.
”As a parent you need to become more involved. You need to talk to the school system. You need to talk to coaches,” the hall of fame player told 13News Now.
That was the goal of our 13News Now Investigation and why researchers at Virginia Tech developed a five-star rating system for football helmets.
Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings Database
Hopefully parents and athletes will use helmet safety data compiled by Virginia Tech and then go to their coaches and school superintendent with questions.
Football helmet safety: Key questions parents should ask school officials
Dr. Stefan Duma, a nationally-recognized Virginia Tech researcher who studies the biomechanics of injury, says the helmet a athlete wears can reduce the risk of a concussion by as much as 50 percent.
”Should parents pay attention to this? I think absolutely. I would say to a vast degree they are because they’re driving the market. By the number of phone calls and emails we get from teachers, superintendents, coaches and athletic directors, they understand its value,” Dr. Duma said.
But how well local school districts understand the value of Virginia Tech's research is less clear.
Years after Virginia Tech released its helmet ratings, 13News Now found 20 high schools in Hampton Roads using helmets not recommended by Tech researchers.
Newport News was the only school district in Hampton Roads where all of their football helmets rated good or better on the Tech rating system.
Norfolk Public Schools told us they take concussions seriously, yet we found more than 70 helmets across the district that Virginia Tech gives a low rating. In Virginia Beach, we found 300 low-rated one and two-star helmets across the district.
“I would pay attention to this rating that Virginia Tech has done and listen to the science. Science doesn’t lie,” Smith said.
When Smith's son played football at Cox High School, he bought him his own top-of-the-line helmet, but he says he understands a vast majority of parents cannot do that.
He says school districts are increasing the risk of a child getting hurt by using helmets that are not up to standard.
“I think they need to get rid of them to be quite honest with you,” Smith added.
Although he’s warned coaches and school superintendents about the dangers of concussions, Smith says parents need to get involved as well.
“We have to put safety first. We have to make sure these kids are protected,” Smith insists, “None of us want to see a child being carted off the field in an ambulance because of something that could be a simple fix.”