'It was amazing': Area youth gifted specialized helmet

April 21st, 2024

MINNEAPOLIS -- At a certain point as Bennett Fisk continued his youth baseball career, he needed to push down on the top of his batting helmet and rock it forward over his forehead just so that he could meet the safety standards enforced by the umpires at his games.

There was nothing Bennett could do about it. Because of his hydrocephalus, a rare condition marked by a buildup of fluid in his brain, Bennett’s head was too big to fit any helmet available on the market -- and the prospect of having to give up baseball was particularly tough because Bennett had been throwing and smashing baseballs since he was old enough to do so.

“He started playing baseball before he was actually playing baseball, we'll say it that way,” said Joe Fisk, his dad.

Photo provided by Nick Hanson of Gillette

Fortunately for the Fisk family, Bennett’s baseball journey doesn’t have to end, thanks to a partnership between Gillette Children’s Hospital, the Minnesota Twins and Rawlings that led to the development of a custom helmet created specifically to fit Bennett’s head. With that helmet in hand, Bennett was recognized at Target Field ahead of Sunday’s game, when he had the chance to score the game’s ceremonial first run as part of the Twins’ partnership with Gillette.

“It means a lot,” Bennett Fisk said. “It gives me something I can do without having to just sit there and play video games all day.”

“Shocking, really,” Joe Fisk said. “It was amazing. We couldn't believe someone actually jumped in and made something happen.”

This day for 15-year-old Bennett came in large part thanks to the hard work of Gillette seating practitioner Nick Anderson and Twins community engagement and events director Julie Vavruska, who were alerted to this need for the Fisk family and tried to find creative solutions to allow Bennett to continue his baseball career.

“I'm just so thrilled that these three partners -- Gillette, the Twins, Rawlings -- were able to come together and figure out a solution to let this kid play baseball with all the tools that he needs to play baseball in the right way,” Vavruska said.

At first, when Gillette tried to find an in-house solution, they couldn’t make anything work, so Anderson reached out to the Twins, considering the long-standing partnership between the two organizations. That allowed for Vavruska to contact Rawlings, which sent over the two biggest helmets available -- but even those proved not to be enough.

So, Vavruska pushed for another solution -- and Rawlings came back with another model that had an expandable feature, which she sent to Anderson and Gillette for further work and measurements.

This sort of project isn’t necessarily in the primary purview of Anderson’s job, which typically deals with custom seating for wheelchairs and other mobility-assist devices. But there’s also a reason why his workplace is jokingly referred to within Gillette’s as “Santa’s Workshop,” he said. When there’s a need like this, his department is often the one folks call.

“We have a lot of special projects come our way,” Anderson said. “People ask us because they have nowhere else to go.”

With the new expandable helmet in hand, Anderson first replaced the foam padding lining the inside with custom 3D printed pads that were thinner but still allowed a similar level of protection, then applied heat treatments and other techniques to expand the helmet even further, leading to this final product.

It’s still a little snug, perhaps, Bennett said as he held it in his hands on Sunday -- but Anderson said it can still be expanded some more, and, most importantly, it fits fully on Bennett’s head. He smiled as he put it on and stood at third base while Twins radio play-by-play man Kris Atteberry provided commentary for Bennett's dash to home plate at Target Field to show it off on Sunday.

“It's pretty cool -- for somebody who might not ever be able to play a sport that they love to now be able to play, I think that's ultimately the best thing,” Anderson said. “If there was nothing else that he could do besides this, I'd be happy.”

There’s already another similar case in the works involving a bigger helmet for a young athlete. In general, there are cases of young athletes who often “give up way too soon,” according to Anderson -- but Bennett Fisk and others now don’t have to.

“He's signed up for baseball right now,” Joe Fisk said. “He's already started practicing.”