Helmets: From Mockable Absurdity to Absolute Necessity


These Riddell Revolution helmets are the latest in protective NFL gear. (Jeff Siner/MCT)

Published: October 2, 2008

Most of the 1,700 players in the NFL languish in anonymity on and off the field, as even the most dedicated fans have trouble attaching a face to every name announced on Sunday afternoons. And unless you’re a Brady, a Manning or currently incarcerated in the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, not much media attention is given to your actions off of the 57,000 square foot rectangle of sod that is your workplace. The reason for this is the football helmet. American football is the only major sport where it is required that every player hide his face for the entirety of the contest.

Twenty-two masked giants zip, lumbar or limp around the field for 60 minutes, resulting in an average of 100 cringe-inducing tackles a game, cause for the ever-expanding list of protective gear required by league officials. Even though most of these players will never have their faces broadcast during a Monday Night Football game and will never get recognized outside of family gatherings, it is thanks to the helmet that no NFL player has ever died of a head injury, either.

While the origins of the game itself are unclear and often contested, the history of the helmet is a bit clearer. One of the first appearances of protective headgear was the 1893 Army-Navy game, in which Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves donned a leather cap on the advice of his doctor, who claimed one more head injury could lead to instant insanity or death. Dan Marino, Steve Young and Troy Aikman feel his pain.

George Barclay of Lafayette College introduced his own design in 1896 that featured “harnesses” to secure the helmet and earflaps. Barclay was not in danger of being concussed to death, but rather hoping to avoid the dreaded cauliflower ear, a gross, albeit purely cosmetic malformation of the ear from repeated abuse. Presumably, Barclay’s opponents, teammates and his own father mercilessly taunted him for being such a prissy coward.

In 1939, John Riddell and his son crafted the first plastic helmet: a lighter, stronger and more durable version of the leather helmets that had come into widespread use. Their business got a tremendous boost a few years later when the NFL mandated that all players wear helmets. To this day, the Riddell name still graces most of the helmets worn in the NFL. A major innovation in the progression of the helmet was made by Fred Gehrke, a former art major and halfback for the Los Angeles Rams, who, in 1948, began painting ram horns on his teammates’ helmets. This also marked the last time an art major made an impact on NFL history.

Still, even as Riddell introduced his Revolution model helmet in 2002, designed to reduce head injuries on the field, football, especially when played at the speed of the NFL game, is a dangerous sport. It was announced Sept. 17 that six NFL players committed to leaving their brains to researchers studying head trauma in athletes. One of the participants, Ted Johnson, former linebacker for the New England Patriots, has claimed in recent years the concussions he sustained during his career have led to cognitive disorders and depression.

In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt held a meeting with football coaches from Harvard, Princeton and Yale, where he threatened to ban the sport unless its violent nature was toned down with stricter rules. While the prospect of banning football today seems ludicrous, it is important to remember the continuous push to make the game safer and to question if that goal has truly been accomplished.