Custom Mouth Guards Help Keep Teen Football Players Safer and Smiling


John Hay High School Hornets players, from left, Timothy Rogers Jr., Milan Early, Treyvon Akins and Justin Ellis.

It wasn't a new helmet that made Treyvon Akins feel safer being tackled this past season as a high school quarterback in Cleveland. It was a new mouth guard as unique as his fingerprint.

Before the John Hay Hornets kicked off their 9-2 season last fall, team players came to Case Western Reserve School of Dental Medicine, where students, faculty and others made molds of their teeth as a first step to creating individualized mouth guards. The new effort—which also involves volunteer dentists from Northeast Ohio—is known as the Safe Smiles program.

"Getting hit with a custom mouth guard, I felt more protected. It's like having an invisible shield in my mouth," said Akins, a senior who also played free safety and plans to play football at Ashland University. "My teammates and I were able to talk in the huddle and breathe better without taking our mouth guards out after every play."

While fitted mouth guards can cost about $250 apiece from a private dentist, they were given to Hornets players for free as part of the Safe Smiles program, which is housed at the dental school and funded by grants from the Greater Cleveland Dental Society, the American Dental Association Foundation and others.

During the next two years, the program will finish outfitting all nine high school football teams in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District with custom mouth guards, with each team's colors and nickname emblazoned across the front.

"The custom mouth guards cushion blows and keep the teeth from coming together fast and hard, which can result in a concussion," said James Lalumandier, DDS, MPH, chair of the Department of Community Dentistry at the dental school and the university's coordinator for the program. "These are much safer than a one-size-fits-all mouth guard from a sporting goods store."

The players also received dental exams and referrals to the dental school clinic and area dentists for cavities and other oral health issues. Many had not been treated by a dentist in years, or ever, said Rodney Decipeda, John Hay's football coach and a science teacher at the school.

"Having the boys seen by medical professionals was invaluable," Decipeda said. "It wouldn't have happened otherwise. Football is temporary, but they'll need their teeth for the rest of their lives."

Nobody is saying the mouth guard accounted for the big improvement, but we'd just like to point out that the team won nine of 11 games last fall—including the Senate City Championship—compared with four of 10 games the year before.