With the NFL 2022 season about to kick off, it is interesting to look back at the history of the helmet, while preparing for the future season.
Flannel and hair
In the 1800’s, players grew their hair long to protect their heads from damage. Maybe that was Alex Anzalone’s thought.
The first helmet created is debatable, but many attribute this title to James Naismith’s flannel helmet. The “father of Basketball,” James, had his girlfriend sew two pieces of flannel together in 1891. What made this design different from a generic flannel head wrap was the straps around the chin and top of the head. It’s main purpose was to protect him from getting Cauliflower Ear (not a recommended google search).
Leather enters the picture
Another possible “first helmet” was created in 1893 by the Admiral Joseph Mason Reeve, who had a helmet developed out of moleskin with earflaps by a shoemaker.
The last possible candidate for the 1st helmet title was George Barclay’s leather harness, ear covering contraption in 1894.
Barclay’s helmet consisted of three strips of leather, padded earmuffs, and a strap to go around the chin.
Thankfully, the early 1900’s introduced the soft leather skull cap. This transformed quickly into a hard leather helmet with a similar design in the 1920’s.
These handsome hard leather helmets became a requirement in the NFL in 1943. They also were painted for the first time in 1947.
The first plastic helmet was invented in 1939. Plastic didn’t take off very quickly for a few reasons: the helmets would smash into pieces upon contact causing them to be banned until 1949, and World War II used a lot of plastic, so it was a rare commodity in the 1940’s.
It was not until the 1950’s that plastic helmets were back to stay. The first helmets were soft and bendy on contact, but yet still heavy.
The facemask consisting of a single bar on the helmet shown above were added to the helmets in the 1950’s and became a requirement in 1962. They were banned in 2004 having been replaced by more refined facemasks, but a few grandfathered in and were on the field until 2007.
Some small changes happened between 1950 and 1985. A radio was added, (and taken away by the NFL) to a helmet in 1956. Padding was added to the helmet in 1971, particularly in the form of an air bladder that was a much needed improvement for the previously lightly padded helmets. Full facemasks were designed in 1975, and visors were added to the helmet in 1984.
One of the biggest technologies to date was the implentation of polycarbinate plastic in 1986. It was lighter, stronger, and less bulky. This material is still being used.
The 90’s and on
There have not been significant changes in helmet design since the 1980’s; in 1995 the radio transmitter was placed back into the helmet, facemask grills were popular amongst defensemen in the 1990’s, and all facemasks had to be transparent in 1998.
There has however been a culture change in the NFL that has placed more emphasis on preventing concussions. Prior, the focus was on preventing signiciant superficial damage to the face or skull fractures. In 2011, an impact indicator was added to the chin strap, and better padding materials have been added in the 2000’s to absorb more impact. Different contours and shapes with added slits to better reduce energy transfer to the skull have been developed.
In the spirit of concussion awareness, fans were able to appreciate the funny looking guardian caps during training camp this year. The pad added to the outside of the helmet, reduces severity of impact to the brain by 10%. They are worn by players who tend to take and deliver more hits, in practices where this impact is most likely to occur.
The evolution of the helmet is fascinating, and likely will continue to be.
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Really a cool article. Thanks for the interesting angle.
Thank you, Greg!