‘Never seen anything like this:’ Football programs dealing with shortage of helmets, pads

North Jersey Media Group (Woodland Park, NJ)

August 24, 2022

Nearly every North Jersey football program was missing equipment — helmets, some type of pads, jerseys or even footballs — when practices began Aug. 10, a survey of coaches conducted by the USA TODAY Network New Jersey found.

The reason? National vendors like Riddell and Schutt, which clean, recycle and replace equipment for high school football programs on weekly and annual cycles, say they have been “severely impacted” by global supply chain, transportation and labor shortages.

The consequence? Players are using dirty pads and jerseys, wearing mismatched and dated helmets and, in some cases, struggling to manage practices with too few balls.

Jack Maher is among the North Jersey football coaches who may have to do extra laundry this fall.

The Becton football coach normally bags all his players’ jerseys after Monday’s junior varsity game. He leaves everything next to his Wood-Ridge home for a Riddell representative to pick up on Tuesday while Maher is in school. They’re all returned clean on Thursday, for Maher, his wife or an assistant coach to pick up and distribute before the next week’s scheduled games.

Riddell and other vendors have told coaches like Maher that they can’t keep up. In turn, New Jersey high school football teams may face problems more serious than cleanliness.

“It’s not fair for the kids,” said Maher, who borrowed six white helmets with a green stripe and black facemask from Pascack Valley, a design that clashes with his team’s own maroon with a white facemask.

“They’re showing up and fighting hard every day,” he said. “It’s mostly freshmen who haven’t played football before, and they can’t do contact drills. We had a couple kids quit, and my immediate thought process was, ‘OK, I’ve got another helmet to give to another kid.’”

These shortages have been building for months.

After the high school football season ends, most coaches ship their helmets and pads to national vendors that recondition and clean them. The best-known companies are Riddell and Schutt, but the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations has 14 certified vendors on its website.

They’re as close as USA Reconditioning in Garfield and Egg Harbor City, and as far as Texas, Colorado and California.

The boxes usually return in the spring, checked according to regulations set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

“I don’t know where this stuff goes. I don’t know what they do with it,” Garfield coach Pete Santacroce said. “The equipment comes back smelling the same exact way. It’s just as dirty.”

Helmets older than 10 years are removed, along with any that are damaged or defective.

That’s where Butler ran into trouble. Bulldogs coach Jason Luciani sent out 69 helmets and received 40 back. The rest were rejected due to age or defects.

Luciani is normally notified in April or May, leaving plenty of time to order replacements. This year, the list didn’t arrive until July. Butler athletic director Derek Hall ordered a handful of varsity-approved white Schutt helmets from Amazon. They’re planning to have them painted gold at a Bloomingdale auto-body shop owned by a Butler High School parent.

Santacroce had 20 helmets “somewhere in limbo” heading into an Aug. 17 joint practice with Nutley and an Aug. 20 scrimmage at Hawthorne.

Luciani had lent knee pads to two schools. New Paramus Catholic coach Greg Russo borrowed some from elsewhere. But he’s more concerned about the Adidas uniforms he ordered in February, about six weeks after getting hired.

Paramus Catholic shipped 100 helmets to Schutt for reconditioning and got only 40 back — and none of the 20 the school had ordered. The Paladins paid more than $200 extra for a top-of-the-line model, which were promised in 30 days. Footballs cost an inflated $107 each due to the shortage.

Russo finally got enough helmets the day before opening camp. The Paladins are still in mismatched practice pants: medium black, but every other size in white.

That’s even after Tim Shea, a math teacher and defensive line coach, took control of the process: keeping a photographic inventory, finding parts so helmets could be repaired on site, and sending “like 30 emails,” according to Russo.

“The worst part is, I never got a timeline,” said Russo, the former Paramus Catholic offensive coordinator who spent the last five years at Northern Highlands.

“These are all items that, in the past, you’d never sweat about, ‘Can I have this?’ … It seems like the quietest thing that’s going on in football, but it’s a major issue,” he said.

Riddell will ship 10% more “total helmet units” compared with 2019, according to its press release. Riddell cut off new orders and promised existing reconditioning orders by the first week of August, and backlogged new helmets and shoulder pads by the end of August, “with the remainder following shortly after in September.”

That’s too late for New Jersey high schools. Week 0 games start Aug. 26, and every team will play by Sept. 3.

However, most mismatched equipment is still within NFHS rules.

The points of emphasis top football officials’ assigner Mark Bitar emailed to coaches last week included a reminder that while all players must wear the same color jerseys, helmets don’t need to match.

In another email, the North Chapter of the New Jersey Football Association concurred, saying, “Tradition sets an expectation that all team players wear the same color helmet, pants, etc. Otherwise, it would be difficult to refer to the garb as a ‘uniform.’ Is the same color required here? No.”

However, Maher didn’t book any sub-varsity scrimmages, due to the missing helmets. Shortages have already caused games to be canceled in Cleveland and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Twenty-five years, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Luciani said. “It’s not a good feeling to be an adult and know a kid has a finite amount of plays in their high school career, and they’re missing them because of equipment. It’s really unfortunate.”

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