Lifestyle

7 Things You Didn't Know About Football Helmets

The NFL is 95-years-old, but helmets have only been mandated since 1943. No other piece of equipment has undergone such significant transformation during the game's evolution than the players' helmet. And for good reason. 

To celebrate such technological advances, we put together a list below, in five parts, on how the helmet has evolved in the last eight decades.


[Editor's note: A version of this story ran prior to the start of this NFL season in September. Parts have updated and modified throughout.]

1. The first helmet ever was made of moleskin. Yep.

There are three fellas who are credited with the invention of the helmet, but there’s one who is the most often credited: Joseph M. Reeves.

Reeves, who was an admiral in the US Navy, was said to have had a helmet made out of moleskin for the 1893 Army-Navy game after he was told by a Navy doctor that he must give up football or risk death if he suffered another knock to the head.

Reeves even took the helmet back to the Navy, and it was briefly used by paratroopers during WWI.

(Above, the Navy football team in 1890.)

2. The luxury of ear holes allowed players to actually hear each other.

Around 1915 the helmet began to take a modern day shape. Additional interior padding was added, as well as flaps with ear holes for better on-the-field communication.

In 1917, Rawlings and Spalding debuted the “ZH” helmet, named after Illinois coach Robert Zuppke who designed it. The ZH was revolutionary as it used padding to cradle the head and absorb shock from tackles and falls. 

3. The original plastic helmets had a shattering problem.

In 1940, John T. Riddell and his son John T. Riddell Jr. (yes, they founded the Riddell company) ushered out the leather era when they began producing plastic helmets. Soon after, the Riddell duo also invented the chin strap. 

The helmets, though, were susceptible to shattering upon impact; hence the NFL's apprehension in adopting them right away. Riddell responded by designing a helmet in the shape of a teardrop, which allowed a blow to slide to one side or the other instead of absorbing it head on.

Once all the construction issues were sorted out, the NFL made the plastic helmet legal in 1949.

4. The Cleveland Browns coach invented the single-bar face mask in the middle of a game.

The face mask debuted around the mid-1930s when Vern McMillan, the owner of a sporting goods store in Indiana, crafted a rubber-covered wire mask. And during a game in 1953, Browns coach Paul Brown conceived the single-bar face mask after his quarterback's mouth was torn open. Brown needed a way to keep him on the field for a victory.

Former Detroit Lion, Garo Yepremian, was the last NFL player to play without a face mask. “’I would wake up every morning with blood in my mouth," Yepremian told ESPN in 2009. "I learned my lesson."

5. Two years later, Brown also invented the radio helmet.

In 1955, Brown met with a Riddell consultant and managed to fit a small radio transmitter into the helmet of his quarterback. This made it easier to coordinate plays, but the Browns' opponents discovered the radio transmitter, and the radio helmet was banned after just three games. (The radio helmet was reintroduced in 1994 and is now standard across the league.)

Headgear evolution continued, and in the '70s Riddell patented “Energy Absorbing and Sizing Means for Helmets." They included valves on top for air to be pumped into the interior padding. The player would put the helmet on, and then have it pumped up for a tailored skull fit. Occasionally, an antifreeze solvent was used, and the annals of Internet history say that some of the Green Bay Packers would use it to deal with the freezing temps of Lambeau Field. 


6. The first team to put a logo on their helmets? The Rams.

Professional team logos started appearing on the helmets in 1948 when Fred Gehrke, a running back for the Los Angeles Rams, painted a horn design on all of the Rams' helmets. Fun fact: the logos were initially intended to help the quarterback distinguish a downfield receiver from defenders.

7. "Smart helmet" technology will soon be a thing.

By the 1980s and '90s, the air-filled padding made lighter cushioning possible. Polycarbonate helmets also became the norm.

Today, the NFL is leaning heavily into technology as evidenced by “smart helmets," which can wirelessly send impact data to a computer on the sidelines. The idea is that if the magnitude of the blow is above a certain threshold, the player will have to come out of the game due to the risk of a head injury.

Companies have also begun investing in “intelligent mouth guards,” which measure the G-force of collisions and, like the smart helmet, send the data to a sideline computer. There is also a chinstrap being developed that can gauge the force of a hit and will light up red to indicate that the player may have suffered a concussion.

It's a violent game, people, and there're no signs of it stopping. 


Christopher Discipio is a staff writer for Thrillist Media Group. He has a newfound appreciation for football helmets. Come knock heads with him on Twitter at @ChrisDiscipio.