Matt Roda remembers how it happened. What happened afterward is hazier.
“Bits and pieces,” he says now.
First period, 0-0. The shrill blast from the whistle. The puck drops and he’s off. He remembers beating his defender, the breakaway that follows. Only open ice and the goaltender wait in front of him. A star high school player, the then-junior left winger makes his move. A flick of the wrist sends the twine swishing.
He scores the game’s first goal.
“But the easiness of that,” he said, “I kind of let my guard down.”
A hit from behind sends him careening into the boards. He goes headfirst.
Cheers get caught in throats. They’re replaced by silence for the minutes that follow.
The haze sets in.
“I was told I laid on the ice for a couple of minutes, and was then pulled off,” Roda said.
He sits on the bench as questions pepper him. Where are you? What year is it? Who is the president? He answers each and goes back in. He plays the rest of the game.
Ice hockey players have been recorded reaching speeds of up to 22 mph on a breakaway. According to ESPN Sports Science, hits in the NHL are on average 17 percent harder than hits in the NFL, where the force of collisions are comparable to car crashes.
Roda drove home that night. He doesn’t remember the full details of the drive. When he gets home, he calls his mom.
He is diagnosed with a concussion the next day.
“That’s the last thing I remember,” he said.
Two months pass by without school. Six months go by without ice hockey, without participation in any sport, before he’s cleared to return to the ice.
“Having gone through the process, I learned a lot about the system and how flawed it is,” said Roda, 20, who recently finished his sophomore year at Penn State. “There was no quantifiable data or any objectivity to it.”
About three years after his concussion, Roda’s company, Reflexion Interactive Technologies, has sought to fill those gaps, carving a niche in the intersection of sports and technology. Its product, known as Edge, is a portable 6-by-2-foot board consisting of composite materials and hundreds of light-up touch sensors.
The device provides a battery of checks that involve dual-task assessments, clinically superior to single-task counterparts, research says, which combine multiple cognitions into a 30-second test. An athlete’s reaction time, memory, depth perception, hand-eye coordination and more can all be monitored and analyzed through the technology.
Similar existing devices fail to bring together the features, Roda said, of Edge. They contain fewer lights or they’re stuck to a wall.
Since Edge is portable, Roda said, it can be moved from a locker room to a fieldhouse to even an away game if needed.
“We realized it needs to be better, it needs to be more interactive,” said Roda, a health policy and administration major. “We need a lot more versatility in what we can do with these tests.”
The company is marketing to high schools and plans to get a beta group of 20 East Coast schools by next spring. Roda said Reflexion is targeting parents to crowdfund the upfront hardware costs of the device, about $2,000, and sell a software subscription model to the schools.
Getting athletes tested on a regular basis, regardless of receiving a noticeable hit or not, is a goal for an increasing number of high school and youth programs across the country. Finding the money to implement these programs, however, is another story.
“If we want to be constantly testing these athletes, where we have them do a test every week regardless of whether or not someone reports a concussion, then to make that practical for schools, the test needs to be both fast and also portable,” Roda said.
With Roda’s concussion, the hit was conspicuous enough to warrant attention.
But his case was rare. Nearly one-third of athletes have sustained concussions that weren’t diagnosed, according to a 2013 study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.
“What happens a lot of times is you might have someone who isn’t hit in a dramatic fashion or maybe they just fall awkwardly or get hit when nobody’s looking,” Roda said. “That person isn’t going to get tested. That’s a reason why the vast majority of concussions get missed.”
The next steps
In May, the company won “The Investment,” a entrepreneurship competition hosted by the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program at Penn State and its Inc.U initiative. Roda, who co-founded Reflexion with two of his high school friends, said the team will put the $15,000 in winnings toward hiring software developers. They plan to build a user interface available in the cloud.
“That way it’s easy for an athlete to access their data whether they’re at home, a doctor’s office or even if they transfer schools,” he said.
Roda has since hung up his skates. Now he’s more used to slinging pitches than shots from the slot: Since they founded Reflexion in 2014, Roda estimates the team has done about 10 startup competitions across the country.
While he’s dabbled in intramural hockey, now, he says, he’s about done.
“It’s just too risky,” he said.
While the hit took Roda’s consciousness for a few minutes, it kept him sidelined for months. He still suffers from chronic headaches from the hit he still remembers. He’s glad he can.
But, he said, not everyone is as lucky. With Edge, he hopes to reduce the chances of what happened to him.
“It’s about making sports safer,” he said.