The vision that changed the way many professional athletes view their sports today struck New England businessman Ed Jarvis after the opening kickoff of the Brooks School's 1994 season bounced off his son's helmet. Ryan Jarvis, a junior return man and tailback at the North Andover, Mass., prep school, not only misplayed that ball but also, on an ensuing punt return, fielded another ball with his shoulder pads. Ryan was relieved of his returning duties for the afternoon and the remainder of his prep career.
At the final whistle Ed Jarvis rushed to the field and began searching for the cause of Ryan's sloppy performance. He slipped on Ryan's helmet. Ryan was playing his first game with a clear plastic shield over his face mask to protect his left eye. He had lost the vision in his right eye the previous spring when a basketball teammate accidentally poked him there and severed the optic nerve. Doctors okayed Ryan's return to athletics on the condition that he wear an eye shield. "I put on Ryan's helmet after the game, and everything looked twisted and distorted," says Ed. "Everything looked farther away than it really was. I wanted Ryan to have a better shield. It became a mission."
An obsession would be more accurate. Jarvis left his position as CEO of Demakes Enterprises, Inc., a food-distribution firm in Lynn, Mass., to focus on developing a better facial shield for Ryan. With the same determination he had brought to other business ventures, Jarvis set out to learn all he could about eye protection, attending ophthalmic seminars and consulting eye doctors who worked with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Jarvis says he was shocked to learn that most shields were crude plastic visors made solely for protection, with little regard for optical correctness. Their distortion, optical experts said, occurred because the plastic was shaped to fit football helmets but not properly curved to allow for accurate vision. The experts were even able to trace Ryan's severe headaches to the shields. "It was like wearing glasses with the wrong prescription," Ed says. "I would ask manufacturers why there weren't protective shields that were optically correct, and they would say, 'We don't know if there's a market for it. Plus, it takes a lot of work and money.' "
The best optically correct shields were those worn by military fighter pilots. Those shields were aspherically curved along both the horizontal and vertical axes, minimizing the bending of light and thereby allowing the eye to more easily gauge distance and shape. Jarvis wanted to copy the design of those shields and use the same scratch-proof coating that NASA uses on astronauts' shields.
Jarvis's passion for the project helped secure the necessary $1.5 million in startup costs. "I hear about 5,000 proposals a year, but this story of a father's devotion to his son was just too much," says Frederick Fritz, president of BancBoston Venture Capital, which became the principal backer of Jarvis's new company, One Xcel. "But we weren't sure if there was a true market for it."
It didn't take long to find out. Within 18 months of its launch in January 1995, One Xcel had made deals with both the NFL and the NHL to become the official eye shield of each league. "We were aware that there were players complaining about headaches from their shields," says Chris Widmaier, the NFL's director of corporate communications. "We just weren't aware that there were other options."
Promoting One Xcel to the players, who usually abhor putting anything between their eyes and the ball or puck, was surprisingly easy. When Jarvis visited the Boston Bruins, the gripe among the players was that the old shields made the puck look smaller than it is. Jarvis began his lecture but was cut short when Ray Bourque, Don Sweeney, Kyle McLaren and Jozef Stumpel grabbed One Xcel samples and slipped onto the ice. They have been wearing them ever since.
Deals with major college football programs such as Florida and Notre Dame helped push the company's first-year sales to just under $5 million. Last June, Jarvis sold the company to Oakley, Inc., but he remains its director of sports optical equipment.
Ryan, now a sophomore at Bates College, a Division III school in Lewiston, Maine, is a reserve linebacker for the Bobcats, wearing his dad's eye shield. "A lot of parents would have done nothing about it, so I know how special Dad's accomplishment is," Ryan says. "I thought about it all the time last year when I was returning kicks."