In the second quarter of this year’s NFC Championship Game, with his Arizona Cardinals already trailing the Carolina Panthers 17-0, tight end Darren Fells caught a pass in the middle of the field and, sensing he was about to get creamed by two linebackers, made a half-hearted attempt to jump over them.
One of those linebackers was Thomas Davis. Fells’s knee smashed into Davis’s right arm at an awkward angle, and Davis immediately grabbed his arm in pain. Trainers escorted Davis to the sideline and into the locker room. X-rays revealed the arm was broken in several places.
“It hurt. It was painful,” Davis said after the game. “At the same time I believe in our training staff and I believe in the process. If it is at all possible I know they are going to get me back and I will do my part to make sure I’m ready.”
At the time, it sounded like a standard sound bite from a disappointed player, one who knew that at age 32, he was about to miss his best–and maybe only–chance to play in a Super Bowl. The injury was a blow to the Panthers, who have one of the league’s best defenses thanks in no small part to Davis.
Now, Davis is prepared to take the field on Sunday, which will mark two weeks since he broke his arm–an injury that sports fans know typically takes at least six or more weeks to heal.
The quick return is in large part thanks to Whiteclouds, a 3-D printing startup in Ogden, Utah. With almost zero notice, the company printed a customized brace designed specifically for Davis’s forearm. It’s strong enough to protect Davis’s arm and the long incision leftover from the surgery, yet soft enough to adhere to the NFL’s rules on casts and braces. Now, all indications are that Davis will play on Sunday.
Davis had a 5.5-inch plate and a dozen screws surgically inserted into his arm last Monday, the day after the injury. On Wednesday, January 27, Whiteclouds got a call from a Charlotte-based company, 3D Elite. They had taken a 3-D scan of Davis’s arm and wanted to know if Whiteclouds could design a brace he could use in-game.
There were a few requirements, as set by the Panthers: The brace had to be comfortable, breathable, and light. It also had to have enough padding to protect the wound and the broken bone while still fitting the NFL’s guidelines.
Oh, and they needed it immediately.
“They said, ‘You’re gonna be getting a scan here in a very short amount of time. Can you allocate resources and pull this off?’ ” Whiteclouds’s founder and CEO Jerry Ropelato tells Inc. “So we pulled the team together and did a little brainstorming and dropped everything.”
A process like this normally takes the Whiteclouds team a week or two. Plus, many of the projects they work on come in halfway complete or more, and it’s Whiteclouds’s job to add to or modify them.
“We were starting from scratch,” Ropelato says. “We literally had to have it printing that evening.”
During the abbreviated, team-wide eight-hour design process, Whiteclouds’s staff came up with a brace that used materials they’d never combined before: hard plastic sandwiched between layers of a rubbery material. They included small holes for breathability. Once the design was set, they checked back with 3D Elite and the Panthers staff for the green light.
“The approval process was, right before we sent it to the printer,” says Ropelato,”we texted an image and said, ‘This is it.’ “
Printing took 30 hours. By Friday, the finished brace was on a plane to the team’s facilities in Charlotte. Davis liked it, and he’s been practicing in the brace the entire week leading up to the Super Bowl.
It’s not uncommon for players to wear braces on the field, nor is it rare for football players to play through tough injuries. But a broken arm is a big deal for a player who makes his living tackling people. And should Davis play as he says he will, Whiteclouds believes it will be the first time a player will wear a 3-D printed piece of equipment in a game.
Whiteclouds is putting its reputation on the line on a massive scale. If the brace fails, it will do so in front of hundreds of millions of people.
But Ropelato says that after a whirlwind few days, he and his 53-person team are pretty psyched. “Could something come along and change that? You bet,” he says. “But we feel pretty good about it right now. I think I’m gonna enjoy the game.”