Taking a look inside the history of the NFL helmet

Helmet technology is more advanced than ever, and it continues to become more innovative and intuitive to meet player needs. It’s almost crazy to think that there was a time where football players didn’t wear helmets at all. So where did it all start? 

The first ever Football Helmet was created in 1893 when after a brutal season Joseph M. Reeves was advised by his doctor that one more hit to the head could lead to instant insanity or even death – and so he commissioned for a shoemaker to create one for him that was a moleskin hat with earflaps. The helmet was basic and provided little protection, but it was the first form of head protection used in a game, and Reeves liked it so much he brought it back to the Navy and it later became standard issue for paratroopers.

In 1896, George Barkley was another individual concerned he would get seriously injured and so started working on his adaptation of the football helmet. His contained leather straps which started the first makings of a chin strap to hold the helmet in place. However even with these advancements players still chose not to wear them. It was said that the leather absorbed lots of heat and so were uncomfortable, and the ear flaps made it difficult to hear others. 

Things changed in the 1900’s, and in 1917 the Zuppke Helmet was created by Illinois coach Bob Zuppke who came up with this design that consisted of air holes for ventilation holes in the ear (?) flaps and straps and a fabric lining in the helmet that helped absorb and distribute impacts.

In 1935, Vern McMillan had a goal to create a mask that could be fixed to the helmet and so the first modern facemask was created to protect a player’s nose, but that didn’t affect the vision of the player, and instead transfer the impact to the outer shell, which featured rubber covered wire.

During all this time, wearing helmets in games was optional (crazy right?), and it wasn’t until 1943 that the NFL instituted a rule requiring all players to protect their heads.

After decades of players wearing the same style of leather helmet, employees at the John T. Riddell Company in Chicago invented a new helmet in 1939 that was made out of plastic. This new material was stronger, durable, and lighter than previous models. It was immediately popular, but then production dropped off as all plastic in the US went towards the war effort. After World War II ended, plastic became more readily available, and in 1949 the NFL mandated that all players wear helmets made of this more durable material. The days of leather helmets were over.

Helmets up until this point were very boring due to their brown colour which also made it difficult to differentiate between teams. So where did the idea of having logos on a helmet come from? Funnily enough, in 1948 Los Angeles Rams halfback Fred Gehrke who was an Art Major in college had the idea of painting a design directly on the helmet. So, he took it home with him and spent the entire night painting his own design which consisted of gold horns on a blue helmet. He presented it to the team, whose Coach Bob Schneider, and owner Dan Reeves loved it so much and commissioned him to paint the same design onto the helmet of every single player at the start of the season. It is said that when the team emerged from the tunnels of the Coliseum wearing their decorated helmets they were met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation that lasted for over five minutes. 

The helmet further developed in 1956 when John Campbell and George Sarles came up with the idea of reducing substitutions during gameplay by putting a radio transmitter in the back of a quarterback’s helmet to transfer in place instead of switching receivers. 

In 1986, the NFL brought in the first Polycarbonate football helmet as a means to prevent greater injuries and to significantly reduce concussions. Polycarbonate is a lighter plastic and far more durable due to how it was manufactured.

After heavily researching a new design, Riddell created in 2002 the first major development in the field in over 25 years, with their helmet aptly named the ‘Revolution’. They had made several advancements in player safety on all levels. The new helmet ensured increased safety, and comfort for football players at all levels of play. Plus, they had popular athletes such as Peyton Manning and Brady Quinn to promote wearing it. In fact, up until 2007, all NFL players had to wear Riddell helmets due to an agreement between them and the league. But this has since changed and players can wear any helmet they want, so long as it meets the league’s safety requirements.

Years later in 2007, helmet manufacturers Schutt created the Schutt Ion 4D and it is a helmet still worn today at many schools. The helmet is revolutionary in many different ways to the Riddell helmet in that it was designed focusing on safety but also with the aim of being stylish. Plus, the padding was made of thermoplastic urethane which helped the air circulating at a cool temperature. 

Helmets have a long history (and you can see pictures of the NFL’s evolution with the helmet here), and without a doubt the evolution is impressive, and it’s a journey that will continue with a player’s safety being paramount. And no doubt soon, we’ll soon be writing the next chapter in the history of football helmets.