Faced with nearly impossible odds at cracking the lineup, just how can a team member tangibly aid the group’s success?
Many benchwarmers—as they are affectionately referred to by their counterparts who receive more playing time—focus on lifting the spirits of their teammates, essentially serving as extra cheerleaders. But for Clark Bulleit and Kevin Gehsmann, both seniors on the Duke football squad, their contribution to the team is as real as it gets.
Bulleit and Gehsmann are rarely called upon on the field—the two have a combined 17 career snaps in their four years on the Blue Devils. And yet, when Duke’s star quarterback Daniel Jones fractured his clavicle against Northwestern Sept. 8, the pair sprung to action, designing and creating a 3D-printed brace that allowed Jones to return from a fractured clavicle in just three weeks.
“This is definitely a first for Duke football,” Gehsmann said.
With Jones’ injury potentially putting the Blue Devils’ season in jeopardy, Bulleit and Gehsmann did not decide to merely spend more time in the weight room or film room. The duo instead opted to focus their efforts at the Innovation Co-Lab—a campus center that hosts all sorts of creative student projects—and take advantage of their respective biomedical and mechanical engineering majors.
Bulleit had extensive experience at the Innovation Co-Lab, as he completed an independent study last semester that focused on creating a 3D-printed wrist brace.
Stumped by what to do when it came to protecting Jones, Duke’s executive director of athletic medicine Hap Zarzour turned to two unique assets he had at his disposal: Bulleit and Gehsmann.
In order to implement any of their ideas, Bulleit and Gehsmann needed approval from the team’s medical personnel. The training staff did more than just simply give the okay, opting to fully collaborate on the process.
“The training staff helped us to identify pressure points, and took Daniel through his range of motion, telling us where the brace could or could not go,” Bulleit said. “We would determine how to change the shape of the brace to cover the collarbone and retain its integrity while not hitting the pressure points.”
The duo began to mock designs for a 3D-printed clavicle brace. 3D-printing allows users to fully customize their object and works by printing small layers of material consecutively.
The potential braces drawn up by Bulleit and Gehsmann were certainly nontraditional and did not resemble a standard brace in the slightest in terms of size and shape. They hoped to create something that would ensure maximal levels of security and mobility for their quarterback.
To ensure full comfort for their teammate, the two engineers made use of scanning technology from the Innovation Co-Lab, customizing the brace to Jones’ body and fitting the brace perfectly to his previously fractured collarbone.
Overall, the two created nine prototypes. For each model, Bulleit and Gehsmann printed on a relatively basic 3D printer before advancing to a more advanced PolyJet unit for the final brace.
“If we are able to help Daniel [Jones] get healthy, then we are helping the team to win games,” Gehsmann said.
Eventually, Jones, the medical staff and the two innovators decided upon a model that custom-fit his collarbone and distributed impact from any hit away from where the initial fracture happened.
In his first two games back from injury, both occurring before his projected recovery time, Duke’s signal caller looked fully comfortable, a testament to the work of Bulleit and Gehsmann. Jones wore his high-tech brace in every practice and game since his return and continues to wear it as he returns to full health.
Perhaps the only area of concern when it comes to Jones’ health affecting his game is his apparent hesitancy to run the ball, with only five rushing yards in his last two contests. However, this is likely a result of increased poise in the pocket, where he is excelling this season.
He appears to be the same player that he was at the beginning of the season, completing 64.5 percent of his passes to go along with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
More importantly, the Charlotte, N.C. native can sustain hits without a worry about his collarbone—a banged up Blue Devil offensive line allowed Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech defenders to sack Jones on seven occasions. Each time, he sprang back up from the ground and stayed in the game.
Bulleit and Gehsmann teem with pride when speaking of their creation, which is one of the first documented instances of a 3D-printed brace being used at a high-end athletic level.
“Hap [Zarzour] told me that this is the most Duke thing that he has ever heard,” Gehsmann said. “So I asked him if that meant he doesn’t like it, and he responded to me ‘No, it means I love it.’”
This innovation is the most recent marriage of Duke’s status as a top-tier academic institution and its elite athletic program. After all, the university checked in at No. 8 in the U.S. News and World Report national college rankings and at No. 11 in the 2017-18 Learfield Directors’ Cup standings—a measure of the overall success of a school’s athletics—joining Stanford as the sole schools finishing in the top 15 of both rankings.
Duke is one of the only places in the world where this kind of idea from student-athletes could be executed so effectively and with a clear impact on the team’s success. Bulleit and Gehsmann accessed equipment, such as the PolyJet printer, which is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, all while being members of a football team that made an appearance in the AP Top 25 earlier this season.
When Jones returned to the field against Virginia Tech after missing just two games, many Duke fans lauded him for a superhero-like recovery period. But it was not just the redshirt junior’s commitment to getting healthy that deserved praise, as two less heralded Blue Devils—Bulleit and Gehsmann—were just as integral to Jones’ speedy return.
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