Builders gonna build. Mike Jolly started building office buildings, apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants and homes in 1983. One other structure always had his attention: the human body. A wrestler and football player in high school and at UCLA, Jolly continued his two-track life by serving as a football coach and strength & conditioning coach, developing athletes when not developing real estate.
In the late 2000s, some of the strongest structures he had ever worked with started to fall. Friends, former teammates and competitors from his days as a Bruin succumbed - sometimes fatally, sometimes in the public eye - to the long-term effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE. Like most sports fans, he knew that concussions were a part of the game. Like football players at any level, he knew that when a player got knocked out by a hard hit, the coaches and trainers would wave some smelling salts under their nose, make sure two fingers didn't look like four and send them back out on the field. And like everyone except a few neuroscientists on the other side of the country, he had no reason to think those hits from back in the day amounted to much over the course of a career, let alone a lifetime. Not until some of those lifetimes were dramatically shortened.
Neck Strength Was A Secret Weapon For the Wrong Reason
Jolly knew during his playing days that his wrestler's neck gave him an advantage on the field. Neck training using plates, bands and lots of bridging was a staple of wrestling training. Since he was a varsity collegiate wrestler and most of his opponents weren't, he could use every part of his body to deliver a hit.
"I used my head as a weapon when I played - because I could! I only thought of my head as a bonus against the opponent when I went in for a tackle, not as a protector of anything of my own," Jolly says.
As a freshman on UCLA's defensive line, he only got knocked out once, so his offensive cranium atop a muscular neck must have been doing something for him.
Neck Structure And Function Merged Into An Invention
The protective value his neck may have provided him came to the front of Jolly's mind as retired NFL and former college players started showing signs of early-onset Alzheimer's, neurological deficits, depression to the point of suicide attempts and a cluster of mental health illnesses.
As these events were unfolding in the sports media and then in the general media, Jolly lost a building contract. But "I'm always building and developing," he said, and on his first day off the job he designed the Iron Neck.
Jolly the athlete couldn't help noticing how good it felt to use the neck to pull and twist against resistance bands on a mat while following his wife's Pilates tapes. Jolly the builder recognized that the neck muscles were all diagonals. Every neck movement, then, has some rotational component to it. Rotating the neck against resistance activates and perfuses the neck muscles, which almost immediately opens up the movements and brings us closer to our natural range of motion. "Think about the evolution involved. If you can't see behind you, whatever is sneaking up on you is going to get you!"
Like many inventions, the first Iron Neck was modeled on its creator: in this case, Jolly's self-admittedly large head. His wife covered his pate in papier-mache to create the first mold for the Iron Neck. Jolly took the mold and his schematics to a machine shop, who told him to go back and rework the specs to hundredths of an inch. The shop made parts for the space program, so .01" is the widest tolerance they know.
Jolly had his first prototype in five days. The 13-pound aluminum halo was not very comfortable. At $900 to make, it was not really affordable and definitely not profitable. But he had something in hand.
Taking Steps To Protect Football Players' Brains From CTE
One of the first Iron Neck's went to Dr. Robert Cantu at Boston University School of Medicine. Jolly had traveled to Boston a couple years earlier to meet Cantu, whose research established the first neurological links between subconcussive blows, concussions and CTE in athletes, particularly in the NFL.
Neurologists knew from boxing that concussions contributed to CTE, and that subconcussive blows - the kind an NFL player may experience over a dozen times in a single drive - can sum into a concussion. But until Cantu drew the links between impacts, concussions and CTE specifically among retired NFL players - and only after he held the line against skepticism, resistance and denial - did football realize that they had an ongoing intergenerational problem on their hands.
Cantu conceived of the neck as a shock absorber to the brain. If an athlete can keep his head from reaching the end range of motion and triggering the flexor-extensor reflex to snap back - whiplash, which slams the brain against the inside of the skull - then the athlete can reduce the trauma the brain experiences from a hit to the body. Developing the neck to prevent whiplash was as important as reducing direct hits to the head.
Early Adopters Stuck Their Necks Out
The first bulk order for Iron Neck's came from the birthplace of NFL combine training, Athletes Performance.
Jolly and his wife, Jenni, looked to exploit the early momentum by exhibiting the Iron Neck at the College Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association annual conference. After a few hours, Jolly noticed that attendees were going out of their way to avoid the weird people barking about the crazy thing you put on your head. Fortunately, "Doc" Kreis, a co-founder of the CSCCA, recognized Jolly from their time at UCLA. He also recognized what Jolly was doing with the Iron Neck, and took it upon himself to ensure that no one left the conference without putting it on.
Sales to a handful of NFL teams and the legendary New Zealand rugby club All Blacks kept Jolly motivated, but were not enough to keep Iron Neck afloat in the long-term. The business plan at that point was to generate enough profit to upgrade construction to plastics and injection molding to reduce the weight and improve overall user experience.
Iron Neck Aims Higher
The business plan reached - in business school terms - its inflection point in 2014.
Captain Matt Schmit was teaching a class in entrepreneurship at the United States Air Force Academy. One of his students knew about a really interesting invention that was being low-key built and sold out of her father's machine shop in southern California: a neck training device developed by her uncle. The class adopted Iron Neck as their project for the semester.
At the end of the semester, the students moved on with their studies and towards their careers as Air Force officers. Their instructor, on the other hand, was at the end of his service and was preparing for his transition to civilian life. And he was not ready to move on from the Iron Neck.
Schmit called his two roommates, Robert Sherman and Sean Supon, from his MBA program at the University of Texas' McCombs School of Business. He told them what he saw in the Iron Neck. They agreed, and took their proposal to Mike Jolly: they would be Iron Neck's first full-time management team. He agreed, and Iron Neck's headquarters moved from Jolly's house in southern California to Austin, TX. While the trio made Iron Neck commercially viable, Jolly continued promoting neck training as an indispensable component of athletic performance and safety.
Neck Training Doesn't Need Impact To Make An Impact
Iron Neck has its milestones of public validation: being a finalist at the NFL's 1st & Future startup competition in 2017, hearing Joe Rogan talk - unsolicited - on the Joe Rogan Experience about his use of the Iron Neck, seeing the Iron Neck in the top private, collegiate and professional sports team gyms. They also know the results athletes and coaches achieve with the Iron Neck. Clemson University won a football national championship without losing a single man-game to concussion throughout the entire season. UCLA reduced concussions dramatically in their first season with the Iron Neck.
Mike Jolly Presenting Iron Neck at NFL 1st & Future
Sometimes they are among the last to know about who is doing what with the Iron Neck.
As the Iron Neck team was trying to solve the chicken-egg problem of getting into physical therapy clinics without any published studies about the Iron Neck in PT settings, a physical therapist in Australia started posting pictures and videos using the Iron Neck across the chain of clinics she owns Down Under, developing her own rehab focused protocol.
“I just loved the potential I saw in using Iron Neck with my whiplash patients,” says Felicity Kermode, Clinical Director at three of the 20+ Move Well PT locations across Perth, Australia. “Almost immediately we began to see excellent results with cervical injuries and concussed patients.”
The mass interest triggered by anything on the JRE and the pop-up in PT clinics signaled a new, perhaps should-have-been-obvious market for the Iron Neck: treating the everyday neck pain that comes from being hunched over a desk, steering wheel or phone most waking hours; from carrying backpacks, purses, kids or boxes; from car accidents, slips and falls; or from jobs that require lifting, reaching, hauling or pulling.
If that sounds like just about everyone, it should. A 2008 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy found that, any given time. 10-20% of Americans are experiencing some level of neck pain; and that over half the population have neck pain in any six-month period.
A product built to strengthen the neck and protect the head of football players and wrestlers, and that was quickly becoming a standard piece of performance-protection training for mixed martial arts and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, could help restore non-athletes. Strengthening the muscles of the neck and shoulder girdle improves posture, mobility and quality of life, whatever physical demands you put yourself under. The Iron Neck started becoming a tool to reduce the costs in time and money for the increasing number of Americans going to physical therapists and chiropractors with pain and movement disorders linked to their cervical spine.
No Excuses For Overlooking Neck Training
"How damn naive I was," Jolly says, thinking about how excited he was to sell one Iron Neck per week in the early days. The naivete made room for a bit of anger (palpable even over Zoom) when he describes "my pet peeve. 'Oh, the neck is so delicate! We can't train that!'" It would be bad enough to hear that from a person on the street, but he still hears it from professional and collegiate coaches.
The anger continues when he talks about how high school and youth sports seemingly have time and money for everything except protecting their players' brains through neck training.
That's not the businessman talking.
That's the coach and athlete who has seen what impact can do to bodies, brains, minds and people. And it's the builder, who knows those consequences are avoidable and who does what he can to make every structure as strong as possible.