The evolution of the football helmet
Football — the American kind — has seen its fair share of eras. The '50s and '60s were bruising and violent. The '70s brought us the super-dominant Steelers. Joe Montana owned the '80s. And we're still living in the Brady era. But nothing illustrates the changing times in football quite like the wild evolution of the football helmet.
The game dates back to the mid-19th century and brought together rules and customs from soccer, rugby and other forms of football played in schoolyards in Britain. And, much like the ins and outs of the game, the helmet has evolved a lot through the centuries.
Since its invention, the humble helmet has always (theoretically) served one purpose — to protect the heads of the players who wore them. But the football helmet didn't exactly emerge the fully-formed feat of engineering that it is today. In fact, football began with... no helmets at all.
Keep going to see the evolution of the football helmet — from the days of no helmets to the 3D-printed, radio-rigged gear we see today.
Are you ready for some 19th-century football?
In this photo from the 1880s, Cornell and Rochester compete in an early college football match.
In the photo, you can see that the Cornell players wearing flimsy caps and the Rochester players wearing only hair atop their heads.
From 1900 to 1905, at least 45 football players died, many from broken necks, concussions, broken backs or other internal injuries.
In a particularly dark political cartoon in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, the Grim Reaper sat atop the goalposts while a heap of football players piled below.
In 1905, many colleges, including Columbia, Duke and Northwestern, began suspending their programs. The Harvard University president at the time described the game as "more brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting or bullfighting." Things were not looking good for this budding American pastime.
That's when President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to prevent the game from disappearing from college campuses altogether. Roosevelt, a fan of the game, helped to negotiate talks between coaches from Harvard, Yale and other universities.
The group introduced a host of reforms. Two particularly important additions: the passing game and the wide receiver position. The addition of the forward pass opened up spacing on the field and cut down on the number of plays that ended in a mess of tangled bodies.
A hat by any other name
During the early years of the 20th century, leather skull caps were introduced as an optional safety measure.
Helmets were not required at the college level until 1939, and the NFL didn't make them mandatory until 1943.
In the Roaring '20s, hardened leather helmets added a little bit of extra protection, compared with the soft skull caps.
In this photo from 1920, Paul Yodski, of the University of Pennsylvania football team, models a hard leather helmet that covers the top half of his face.
By the mid '20s, helmets crept down over the nose to protect players' vulnerable sniffers.
Hinkey Haines of the New York Football Giants showed off his nose-protecting helmet in 1925.
This helmet has seen better days
Fortunately, this kid was just the mascot for Fordham's football team in 1926, because his helmet has a big ol' dent right in the front.
He does seem to be having a swell time carrying all those footballs, dented helmet and all.
And it wasn't just the men putting their leathered heads together on the football field.
Here, aspiring actress Lola Holly reapplies makeup between downs in a 1927 scrimmage in Hollywood.
Train like a girl
These girls from Woodberry Hall School in Georgia attend football practice in 1928.
Each of these smiling athletes wears a hardened leather helmet, the standard in safety equipment at the time.
Before Gronk, there was Bronk — Bronko Nagurski, that is. Nagurski was a Canadian-American football star who played both offense (fullback) and defense (tackle) during his college career at Minnesota.
Here's Bronk back in 1929, showing off some moves, and a perforated leather helmet, for the camera.
Cold hands, warm head
Leather helmets kept players heads warm — uncomfortably so in the warmer months. But that didn't seem to be a problem during this chilly game in 1930.
Here, the Chicago Bears bundle up under blankets on the bench during a game against the Chicago Cardinals on November 27, 1930.
Helmet designers added air holes to helmets to keep players from overheating.
This photo shows a player from the University of Southern California in a striped, perforated helmet in 1934.
Over at UCLA, in 1939, a multi-sport athlete by the name of Jackie Robinson (center), wore a helmet with large triangular holes.
This was the first season that helmets were mandatory in collegiate play. It was also the year that helmet manufacturer Riddell introduced its first plastic helmet.
A different kind of battlefield
But with the outbreak of World War II, plastics became much harder to come by on the home front.
In this photo from 1944, General George Smith Patton wears a plastic helmet with three stars, denoting his status as a three-star general.
Old helmets die hard
For a few years, in the 1940s, helmet eras overlapped. Some teams were skeptical of the new plastic designs; others believed the solid shell was beneficial, as it held its shape on impact.
Here, the University of Southern California, in white shirts and plastic helmets, faces off against a leather-helmeted Tennessee Volunteers squad in 1945.
Professional football leagues finally mandated helmets for players in 1943. In this match from the mid 1940s, the Cleveland Browns faced off against the New York Yankees (yep, that was the name) at Yankee Stadium (the same Yankee Stadium) in the All-America Football Conference playoffs.
One team wore plastic helmets, the other wore leather.
A new trend in LA
The Los Angeles Rams were the first NFL team to sport a helmet emblem. In 1948, a halfback named Fred Gehrke painted the iconic horns on the sides of each players helmets. The team's owner reportedly paid Gehrke $1 for each helmet painted.
Here, running back Les Horvath shows off the new look that same season.
After the war, with America's young men back stateside, football boomed in popularity.
Plastic helmets suffered a temporary setback when a bad batch of plastic resulted in shattered helmets. The NFL banned them in 1948. But after just one year, the recipe had been perfected, and, in 1949, the hard-knock headgear was reinstated.
A year later, plastic helmets were ubiquitous.
All-American Frank Gifford wore the very first plastic helmet at the University of Southern California in 1950.
The design was simple: It featured the school's cardinal red with a gold stripe down the center.
I left my helmet in San Francisco
Here, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Y.A. Tittle poses in a plastic Wilson helmet. Tittle played for the Niners for 10 seasons, from 1951 to 1960.
He went to four Pro Bowls, led the league in touchdown passes in 1955, and was named the NFL Player of the Year in 1957.
Not in the kisser
The '50s also marked the return of face protection to the sport — the first mainstream attempts since those nose-covering leather helmets of the 1920s.
In this 1953 photo, Rams wide receiver Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch (No. 40) wears just a chin strap on his helmet while Hardy Brown (No. 33) of the San Francisco 49ers wears a lucite face shield.
Gimme some air
In 1952, this Rams player wore an early tubular metal face mask. Here, he's inhaling pure oxygen from a machine called a "vitalator."
Bar face masks would soon become the norm in the NFL.
Cracks in the armor
Lucite face shields fell out of favor as quickly as they popped up. The reason: Lucite shatters. Eyes were damaged.
The NFL banned the material for use in football helmets in 1957.
What can Brown do for you?
These single-bar face masks exploded in popularity in 1954, when legendary Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown asked the team's equipment manager to devise a mask that could be permanently affixed to his quarterback's helmet.
Here's what those standard-setting Browns helmets looked like in 1956.
For the next two decades, face masks continued to evolve in complexity. The shape of the mask could often indicate a player's position. Kickers and quarterbacks opted for face masks with the best sight lines.
Guards, like the Detroit Lions Harley Sewell, and linemen chose masks with more impact protection.
In 1955, the NFL mandated that players wear face masks while playing. In 1956, the league added a penalty for grabbing another player's face mask — at the time, it was deemed illegal unless that player was carrying the ball.
In 1962, the NFL upgraded the penalty to include ball carriers.
The longevity of the single-bar helmet
Punter Scott Darwin Player was the last person to wear the single-bar helmet, in 2008. The NFL banned the mask design in 2004, but Player was grandfathered in to wearing the design. So, he continued to punt, face largely exposed, until the end of his career.
He, and his helmet, made one final appearance in 2008 with the Patriots.
Protecting America's youth
Here's a look at the kids' helmets of the 1950s. By the middle of the decade, the hard shell plastic helmet was already popular among school-aged athletes.
This photo from 1954 shows a huddle at a youth league game in Scarsdale, New York.
Two bars are better than one
In the 1960s, the two-bar face mask was all the rage.
Here, legendary Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown wears a Riddell TK suspension helmet with the two-bar mask configuration.
Here's another look at the two-bar face mask in action, this time in 1968. These masks remained popular into the 1980s.
Denver Broncos kicker Bobby Howfield warms up before a game.
From the outside, helmets and face masks from 1982 look a lot like what we see on the field today.
It's on the inside where many of the improvements have taken place in the last three decades.
Future's so bright
Football sun visors, like these Oakley Pro Shields, were introduced in the 1980s.
Like any sunglasses would, these visors reduce glare and make it easier for players to see on sunny days.
A scary moment
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman took a knee to the head in the 1993 season NFC Championship game. He later told reporters that he has no memory of playing in that game.
That same year, the NFL established an MTBI (Mild Traumatic Brain Injury) committee to study the many concussions in the league.
The elephant in the room
Aikman announced his retirement in 2001, citing concussions and back injuries as two of the reasons he would not return to the field.
One year later, in 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, working with former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, would discover evidence of a brain condition that would become a familiar refrain in the football world — Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.
Nostalgia sets in
The Boston College Gridiron Club dedicated the O'Rourke-McFadden Trophy in 2008, celebrating the spirit of the leather-helmet era.
The trophy is awarded annually to the winner of the game between Boston College and Clemson.
In 2009, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and others testified before the House Judiciary Committee in a hearing about head injuries among NFL players. Goodell said the NFL was studying the problem.
Later that year, the NFL officially acknowledged the long-term health risks associated with repeat concussions. In December, new concussion protocols were put in place to test players for symptoms before allowing them to return to play.
The smash lab
The NFL held a Health & Safety Update and Interactive Technology Showcase in 2016. The Vicis ZERO1 helmet was rated No. 1 by the league in reducing the severity of blows to the head.
Vicis tests their helmets in a "smash lab," where machines and dummies simulate the hard hits players take on the football field.
Here's a prototype Vicis ZERO1 helmet on display during the NFL's 2016 Health & Safety Update in San Francisco.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson wears a Vicis ZERO1 helmet on the field. Wilson is also an investor in the helmet company.
Check out your mind
Brain diagnostics company BrainScope scored a grant from the NFL Head Health Challenge that helped them build the Ahead electro headset, a device that helps doctors quickly diagnose traumatic brain injury.
The headset was on display at the 2016 Health & Safety Update and Interactive Technology Showcase.
Making an impact
Checking back in with the military, America's fighting forces still take cues from the football field. In 2018, the U.S. government announced a contract with helmet manufacturer Vicis aimed at redesigning Army and Marine Corps helmets to better protect soldiers from head trauma.
The U.S. Department of Defense also awarded BrainScope more than $27 million in research contracts to help develop diagnostic tools for military use.
Here, a Marine Corps trainee wears a football-style Riddell helmet during training in 2003.
Flexibility is key
Riddell created the Speedflex helmet to help absorb the impact of a head-on collision. The five-sided, rubber-padded panel on the front of the helmet gives by up to a quarter of an inch when struck, absorbing some of the impact before it reaches the player's head.
Riddell also designed the stainless steel face mask to distribute the force of impact over a wider area.
Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs wore a Riddell Speedflex Diamond — and Christmas-themed shoes — in game against the Dolphins in December 2020.
Diamonds are a football player's best friend
The "Diamond" part of the Speedflex Diamond describes the 3D-printed lattice liner that cushions the inside of the helmet.
The structure of the lattice liner allows for more air circulation and breathability than a traditional air-cushioned helmet.
Here's a look at the inside of a Riddell Speedflex Diamond helmet.
Riddell also offers custom precision fitting that analyzes a player's head shape when considering the exact dimensions of the liner.
Of course, players who prefer the air-fit liner can still get helmets with inflatable interior cushions.
The Riddell Speed Classic Icon uses their Air-Fit technology.
Justice for all
In July 2020, the NFL began allowing players to wear decals on the back of their helmets featuring the names of victims of systemic racism and police violence.
Titans defensive tackle Larrell Murchison wore the name "Breonna Taylor" on his helmet during the AFC Wild Card game against the Baltimore Ravens in January 2021.
Fists in the air
Las Vegas Raiders offensive tackle Trent Brown wore this custom face mask, featuring the image of a raised fist, before a game against the Indianapolis Colts in December 2020.
Brown had to wear a different face mask during the game, per the 2013 NFL ban on custom mask designs.
Of course, no player will wear this jewel-encrusted Cleveland Browns helmet, but it sure does look sparkly inside this trophy case at the NFL Draft Experience in Cleveland.
How many jewels do you think are on this helmet?
A new champ
In February 2021, Vicis announced the first position-specific helmet, created for linemen — called the Vicis ZERO2 Trench.
The company also announced the Vicis ZERO2 Matrix, that has a breathable microfilament liner.
Vicis helmets claimed the top three spots at the 2021 NFL Players Association helmet-testing showdown, beating out other popular models from Riddell, Schutt and Xenith.