The cutting edge: NIU engineers invent football training sled

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DeKALB – Craig Rusch had plenty of down time on the sidelines during the fall of 2007. After a season-ending knee injury, it was watching and waiting with a little time to reflect and daydream.

He watched practices he couldn’t compete in, film he wasn’t in and drills – like a cut-blocking drill where coaches rolled a 60-pound ball at defensive lineman – he couldn’t participate in.

One day – he doesn’t remember which one – an idea came to him.

What if there was a better way to simulate a cut block?

He thought about it, drew up what was in his head and last Sept. 28 showed it to classmates Britt Mork and Chris Newquist as they sat down to eat at The Junction.

The trio of senior mechanical engineering majors had been juggling around thoughts for their senior design project, and Rusch was finally ready to present his idea.

“When Craig started talking about this, I don’t think either of us had any clue what he was talking about,” said Newquist, a Sycamore High graduate. “I know football, I know what a chop block is but ... Craig had a mental picture in his head that needed forming. The way he drew it the first time, I looked at him like ‘I don’t know what this is at all’ “

“He’s not very articulate,” Mork joked.

After a little more explaning, however, Mork and Newquist began to follow, and they fell in love with the idea.. Before the end of the year, they had a model drawn on their Pro-E engineering design software.

The cut-block sled would be their brain-child, and last spring it was their life.

The process

After the computer model was built, the next step was building the sled. From the start, that was more difficult than it sounds, because things that work on the computer don’t always work in real life.

The trio set up shop at Newquist’s father’s business, T & H Industries on Industrial Drive in DeKalb. They had all the parts and equipment already at the shop, which builds air purification systems, and they could use it as convenient storage space as well.

Rusch had just five credit hours of classes last spring – three dedicated to the senior design – so he estimates he spent at least 15 hours a week at the shop, building and tweaking with Mork and Newquist.

There were glitches along the way – the circular tubing was bending, the brake was sticking and the blocking pad wasn’t dropping quick enough – all things they tried to iron out.

“Instead of taking notes in class, we just started drawing pictures of what we wanted it to look like,” Mork said. “We started looking at roller coasters, machines in [the weight room] and the other sleds out here. We wanted to see what was working in [the weight room] and what was smooth there and apply it.”

Eventually, that’s what they did. The biggest headache of the construction process was the box that controls when the blocking pad drops. After some trial and error, that box now contains large casters, like much of the weight-lifting equipment on the market.

“We call it the Frankenstein setup,” Mork said.


The presentation
Once the sled was complete, it was time for the class presentation.

While the sled didn’t fit in the classroom, it was rolled into the engineering building for the presentations encore.

When the three students walked into the room to present, they were a bit surprised – it was packed. NIU coach Jerry Kill was there with defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, defensive line coach Jeff Phelps, athletic director Jeff Compher, members of the engineering industry and a whole lot of family members.

That was the first time the trio really understood that the sled – the first of its kind - was a big deal

“It was kind of nerve-racking,” Newquist said. “Britt and I didn’t know they were coming until that morning.”

Afterward, the group went into the hallway to see the sled in motion. A lineman starts blocking the pad and sled on one end of the 20-foot track and it will suddenly drop to their feet at certain adjustable triggering points along the way.

When the pad came down, the demonstration was a bang.

“It did attract a lot of people around the building, because it’s pretty loud slamming on a flat floor,” Mork said.


The meeting
After the presentation, the trio knew they should get the idea patented if they wanted it to be used in the future.

Their idea was featured in the engineering school’s newsletter and the university shot a commercial – still in production – that will feature the students while promoting the university and football team.

Since the sled was created for an NIU class, the university holds intellectual property rights to the idea. They had discussed patenting the idea, something that will cost between $15,000-$20,000 and now are waiting until a late August budget meeting to decide whether to greenlight the project.

If not, the idea will be released and the three NIU students will be allowed to patent the idea on their own.

Eleven months, three models and plenty of headaches later the fruit of those long hours had its reward Friday morning. As the Huskies’ defensive linemen went through their drills, they used the cut-block machine for the first time.

Mork said that Kill would contact them afterwards to suggest things that need to be changed.

“It’s an interesting device,” NIU defensive end Brandon Bice said. “It was a new experience. It’s kind of a goofy thing but it does the job. It does what it’s supposed to.”

It’s still a prototype – with its own set of glitches – but if the trio have their say, it could also become an even bigger part of their lives in the future.

“We could sell the idea, work on a couple and then sell the idea or we could just pick this up as our career or our hobby on the weekends,” Mork said. “There’s a couple different paths we could take with it and we’re looking at all of them right now.”


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