Leatherhead to Radio-Head: The Evolution of the Football Helmet

From hand-cobbled beginnings, the football helmet has shifted to become one of the most highly designed pieces of equipment in all of sports

A chronology of NFL helmets
A chronology of NFL helmets NFLevolution.com

In professional football, the only line of defense against head injury –other than the defensive line– is the helmet. But the earliest football helmet looked more like a padded aviator cap than the high-tech crash-tested helmet used by today’s players. There’s a reason for that.

There are a few different stories about the invention of the football helmet but the earliest and the most frequently told dates back to they Army-Navy game of 1893. Admiral Joseph Mason Reeve (“the father of carrier aviation”) had apparently been kicked and hit in the head so many times, his doctor told him that another hard impact could lead to “instant insanity.” Determined to play in the big game, Reeve went to his shoemaker and had him fashion a moleskin hat with earflaps. So it was that the helmet –I’m using the term loosely, here– was born. But the football helmet would see battle off the field as well – Reeve took the design back to the Navy and it was briefly used by paratroopers during the first World War.

Riddell’s Revolution helmet
Riddell’s Revolution helmet Riddell

In the early 1900s, soft leather skull caps appeared as optional headgear worn by few players. By the 1920s, hardened leather helmets were first worn, slightly increasing the level protection. Slightly. Perhaps more importantly, these early helmets inspire the popular vision of “old-timey” football, not to mention such films as the underrated Leatherheads, starring George Clooney and John Krasinski. But I digress.

Again, it’s worth reiterating that helmets were not mandatory. That wouldn’t happen until 1943. During the 1920s and 1930s, variations of the leather helmet appeared, but in 1939, the game changed –or at least became safer– when John T. Riddell introduced the first plastic helmet. Unfortunately, as plastics became more scarce during World War II, so did the more durable helmet. After the war, the helmets went back into production, but there was a problem with the plastic mix that cause many helmets to break into pieces. Remember that scene in Batman Begins where the cowl shatters? I imagine it was something like that.

As a result of the faulty plastic, the NFL banned the helmets. Within a year, the error had been corrected and the plastic helmet was formally re-introduced to professional football just a year later, quickly followed by the padded plastic helmet. (Note to people who get hit for a living: it’s always a good idea to add more pads.) Another important change came in 1948 when Los Angeles Rams halfback Fred Gehrke painted horns on either side of his helmet, making the rams the first professional team with a helmet emblem.

Up to this point, all the helmets were still open faced. And almost all those open faces had black eyes, bloody noses, and swollen lips. That changed in 1955 when a single face bar was added to the padded plastic helmets. And of course, with the invention of the face mask came the invention of the face-masking – banned in 1956. The single bar face mask was the invention of Paul Brown, the first coach of Cleveland’s professional football team, who came up with the prototype in order to keep starting quarterback Otto Graham in a game after he took a hard hit right to the kisser. Brown and the equipment manager quickly assembled the crossbar, patched up Graham, and sent him back on the field to win the game.

After the victory, a slightly more formal design was created and all Cleveland players were required to wear the single bar masks. Other NFL teams soon followed suit. Brown patented his design, known as the BT-5, and it went into production by Riddell, who still make the official helmet of the National Football League. By 1962, facemasks were worn by every player in the game. Former Detroit Lion Garo Yepremian was the last NFL player to play without any facemask, only adapting the crossbar in 1967. “’I would wake up every morning with blood in my mouth,’ he told ESPN. ‘I learned my lesson.’”

Though the single bar face mask was an important innovation, it was soon replaced by increasingly complex styles of face protection. In 2004, the NFL formally banned single bar helmets, but some players were grandfathered in. This exception was made exclusively for kickers, who like the single bar because what it lacked in safety, it made up for in visibility. The last single bar helmet appeared on a professional field in 2007.

A sampling of the many face masks offered by Riddell
A sampling of the many face masks offered by Riddell Riddell

During the 1960s and 70s, manufacturers developed thick foam padding that was installed in the helmets and in 1975, the full face mask appeared. Today, dozens of face mask designs are available, offering a variety of options related to protection and visibility. By the mid 1980s, the football helmet had become a complex, highly engineered piece of equipment. A typical helmet weighed three pounds, with an outer shell composed of polycarbonate over a layer of aluminum and vinyl foam on top of plastic and then a thin layer of leather. The inside of the helmets were lined with foam padding and plastic pods or an inflatable layer designed to absorb the shock of impact and create as tight a fit as possible.

In 1995 the football helmet went high-tech, when a new rule permitted quarterback to have a radio transmitter in their helmets, making it possible for a team’s coach to call in plays without the need for elaborate sideline semaphore. The use of radio receivers –or should I say radio quarterbacks–are now regulated by the NFL, but it’s up to the teams to decide what kind of system they use. This sometimes can prove to be more of a hinderance than a help, as illustrated by the San Francisco 49ers, who until this year, were known for their terrible helmet radio system that would cut off in the middle of a called play or even pick up pilot chatter from passing aircraft.

Despite the relatively recent integration of this technology, helmet radios are by no means a new development in professional football. Once again, Paul Brown proves to be an innovator. The Cleveland Browns patriarch, who has many coaching “firsts” on his record, experimented with a citizen’s band radio in his quarterback’s helmet as far back as 1956. The last great official change to the helmet came in 1998 when transparent face shields were allowed to protect players’ eyes. Tinted visors, though they may look cool, are only permitted by the league with the approval of appropriate medical documentation.

Crash testing a football helmet
Crash testing a football helmet Riddell

Finally, it’s impossible to talk about helmets without saying a few words about safety. Head injury is a growing concern in all sports, but especially football. Just this past summer, 2,000 NFL players joined together in a lawsuit alleging that the League failed to adequately inform players of the neurological risks –dementia, depression, reduced cognitive ability, sleeplessness, early-onset Alzheimer’s– associated with getting pounded into the dirt day after day. Surprisingly, the rule book is light on helmet specifications. While there many incredibly specific rules on intentionally striking a player with a helmet or otherwise using the helmet with any sort of malicious intent, there are no rules dictating what kind of helmet a player can wear other than the stipulation that all helmets must be approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE).

Players are free to choose their own helmets for their own reasons, be it protection, nostalgia, or even vanity. Believe it or not, vanity was even a concern back in the halcyon days of Paul Brown, whose players initially objected to the face mask mandate because they made players too anonymous. Today, helmet mandates in the NFL rule book focuses only on the chinstrap and face mask:

Helmet with chinstrap (white only) fastened and face mask attached. Face masks must not be more than 5/8-inch in diameter and must be made of rounded material; transparent materials are prohibited.

That’s it. The only official rule on helmets. The only other regulations have to do with logos and branding. While the NOCSAE conduct myriad tests on helmets, they do not simulate conditions that can result in concussion, as The New York Times recently reported. However, there are signs that this many be changing. Today’s professional helmets are primarily made by two companies: Riddell and Schutt. Both manufacturers have released helmets designed specifically to protect against concussions after research found that most concussions were caused by hit impact to the side of the head or jaw. The NFL have also taken steps to ensure players safety, such as requiring a brief examination on the sideline after head blows, but the issue remains one of the most controversial in sports.

From humble, hand-cobbled beginnings in a shoe shop to the highly engineered designs produced in the elaborate testing facility of today’s top manufacturers, the football helmet has come a long way in just over a hundred years. But so has the game. Players are faster and stronger than they ever have been and the hits just keep on coming. New materials, new designs, new technologies, and perhaps even new regulations will make sure the helmet keeps up with the game.

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