History Lesson : Helmet Evolution

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Guess when the first non-leather helmets were worn?

No really, guess.

Here are a few numbers to help you out.

Football in American started in earnest in the 1890’s.

Most guys weren’t even wearing helmets then.

The NFL was born in 1920.

Having some sort of head protection seemed like a good idea to most at this point, so players wore leather helmets (hence the term “leather heads”) which increased in size and padding as the years went on.

Plastic helmets became the standard in…

1949!!! How in the world those guys survived without helmets for all those years, I’ll never know. Oh my word.

But we do know the story of how plastic helmets came into existence, and it’s actually really good.

Ready?

Ok, so, Riddell, the company that still makes the NFL’s helmets, made the first plastic prototype in 1939. But then World War II happened, so making harder helmets for men who were playing a game, not fighting a war, became less of a priority. Thus, the helmet construction process slowed down quite a bit until materials became more widely available.

In 1949, Riddell produced a much, much better model of their original 1939 edition, and it soon became the official helmet of the NFL. It even featured a leather chin strap! But you might not recognize it for lack of one missing feature:

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The face mask. Oh, the face mask. Who needs ’em, am I right?!

Otto Graham may beg to differ. Here’s that portion of the story, straight from Riddell:

All NFL players were maskless until the Browns’ home game against the 49ers where Otto Graham took an elbow to the face, ripping open the side of his mouth near the end of the half. His coach, Paul Brown, had a lucite prototype put on Otto’s helmet by the team equipment Manager. Otto insisted on playing the second half. Paul Brown owned the patent for the face mask made by Riddell and used his profits to create the Cincinnati Bengals.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. And the mother of the Browns/Bengals rivalry.

Today, with all of the legitimate concern over head trauma, helmets are heading into a whole new era. Riddell has developed several revolutionary models which feature sensors that measure impact and determine whether or not it’s safe for a player to continue playing. The sensors can even transmit wireless messages to coaches on the sidelines when a player has exceeded the predetermined impact capacity and needs to be evaluated before getting cleared to go back out on the field. Given the gravity of the situation, it’s an encouraging prospect. And just look at how far we’ve already come since the leather head days!

Reason to be optimistic for the future, I think.

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