Charting the Changes in NFL Helmets

NFL Draft Diamonds

November 16, 2021

When it comes to the NFL, the uniforms are very much a part of the show. It’s the first thing we notice when the teams first run onto the field, and die hard fans all clamber to get their favorite player’s jersey to wear to games.

Each uniform has a rich history, and it has become a key part of each team’s identity.

But one aspect of the uniform that is particularly important is the helmet.

Not only does it define each team’s image and brand, but it’s also a key safety feature, something that has become particularly relevant in recent years as modern science gains a better understanding of what playing football can do to the brain.

Today, helmet technology is more advanced than ever, and there is a huge push to continue to innovate. However, there was a time when football players didn’t wear helmets at all.

Let’s take a look at how we got to where we are today:

The First Football Helmet

The game of football dates back to the late 19th century, and so does the story of the helmet. After getting hit in the head so many times and hearing from his doctor that another collision could lead to “instant insanity,” US Navy Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves crafted a leather helmet with flaps over the ears. He wore it in the 1893 Army-Navy game.

The helmet was rudimentary at best 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 made it standard issue for paratroopers. That, too, did not last.

Helmets Become Mandatory

Over the next forty years, more and more players began weaning helmets in games. The first versions were made of soft leather and provided little protection. Later models were harder and included straps and flaps for the ears.

However, during all this time, wearing helmets in games was optional. It wasn’t until 1943 that the NFL instituted a rule requiring all players to protect their heads.

Plastic Helmets and Facemasks

A major change in the history of football helmets came in 1939 when John T. Riddell introduced the first plastic helmet. It became immediately popular, but then production dropped off as all plastic in the US went towards the war effort.

After WWII 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.

Plastic facemask bars were added in the 1950s, and by 1962 every player in the game was wearing a helmet.

Over the course of the next few decades, helmet technology changed, but not all that much. Pads were added, shapes were changed, and more intricate face masks were installed. Single bar face masks remained in use until the 1990s, with the NFL officially banning them in 2004.

The Riddell Revolution Helmet

As a response to the growing body of knowledge speaking to the dangers playing professional football poses to the brain, in 2002, Riddell completely redesigned its helmet to try and make it as effective as possible in reducing concussions. This helmet, the Riddell Revolution, remains one of the most popular helmets in the game, though it has been upgraded several times since it was first invented.

Many of these upgrades include adding technology to the helmet to track the number of impacts a player receives so that they can better monitor their own health.

Up until 2007, all NFL players had to wear Riddell helmets due to an agreement between the league and company. But this has since changed and players can wear any helmet they want, so long as it meets the league’s safety requirements.

The Future of NFL Helmets

Just like NFL teams and their uniforms, NFL helmets have a long history. And the story is still unfolding. As part of the ongoing effort to make the game safer and more accessible, helmet technology is constantly evolving. Soon, we will be able to write the next chapter in the history of NFL helmets.

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