How a half-inch of ballistic material is guarding Drew Brees’ ribs

Rob Vito was one of the millions who tuned into the big-time matchup last Sunday between the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs, but he had a bit of a unique rooting interest.

He was paying particularly close attention late in the third quarter when Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward came screaming off the edge on a corner blitz, making a beeline for Brees’ right side, the side where just a month earlier Brees had a collapsed lung to go along with 11 broken ribs.

Ward waylaid Brees, a hard shot from a nearly 200-pound man moving at high speed, sending Brees sprawling to the turf. Brees popped back up, and CBS analyst Tony Romo said, “That’s why you wear the stuff.”

The stuff, in this instance, was a custom made set of two protective shirts designed by Unequal Designs. Vito is Unequal’s CEO and Founder, which is why he was so interested Sunday, and he was particularly tickled by Romo commentating on Brees’ protective equipment.

“You know how God has a sense of humor?” Vito said. “Tony Romo, who was in the booth, I built his shirt for the home opener (in 2011 after) he broke four ribs and punctured his lung. So here Tony Romo is talking about the same thing, the same gear, the same damn shirt. It’s like deja vu.”

Vito’s company has been providing protective equipment for NFL athletes for more than a decade now, and he said he fielded a few more calls from some prominent NFL quarterbacks after he successfully pitched his product to Brees and the Saints before the Chiefs game.

Earlier this week, Brees said he’s been playing with some sort of protective layer beneath his uniform since he first started playing in the NFL. Over the years the material has gotten lighter and thinner, more conforming to the body’s shape.

What he wore last week was different, though.

“There are all kinds of different products out there,” Brees said. “Everybody comes out of the woodwork when you have rib injuries, and tells you, ‘Hey, wear this, you can jump on a grenade, you’ll be okay.’ ”

Yes, Brees said, that is the one he ended up wearing — a two-piece combination of what Unequal calls its Invincible shirt and its Pulse shirt. No, Brees is not going to try his luck with the live grenade.

“I won’t be the one to prove that theory,” he said with a laugh.

There is a reason behind that military comparison, though: The Unequal origin story is based around a challenge to design military-grade body armor — bullet, grenade-proof stuff — that is light and flexible. Still now, it produces protective equipment that is designed both for ballistic and athletic purposes.

The shirts Brees wore included a kevlar layer that is used in Unequal’s bulletproof vests.

“We build gear for Navy SEALs, for the armies of the world, for NATO, for police departments,” Vito said. “So if we can stop a bullet, we can sure stop a blitz.”

Brees wore two shirts to meet two different purposes. One was a base layer, compression-style shirt with horizontally oriented rib and clavicle protectors built in. The other was an outer layer with vertically oriented padding that moves and bends with the body but come together and stiffen when impacted.

Both shirts are constructed with four layers of material, but if it was hard to see through Brees’ uniform, there’s a reason for that — combined, the two protective shirts are half an inch thick.

“It can not impede or impinge,” Vito said.

Unequal made Brees’ shirts custom for his needs, providing additional cover where needed.

Judging by the way Brees got back up after taking the big hit from Ward, later leading a touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter that brought the Saints within a field goal of the Chiefs, Vito sounded satisfied with his product’s performance.

“I’m honored to have protected a G.O.A.T,” Vito said. “I’m truly honored.”

New Orleans Times-Picayune



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