Football Opening Day: The Quest for the Perfect Helmet

Football helmets were once little more than leather caps. They've improved since then, but protection against concussions remains elusive.

helmets.jpgTonight the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers will face off on the gridiron at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The game will be a match of brute force, speed, skill, and strategy, but it's not just bodies on a field. The gear they wear plays a role too, and one piece in particular received a makeover for the new season: the helmet.

In recent years, a spate of studies has revealed long-term damage to many pro-players' brains. Additionally, some 67,000 concussions are reported among high school football players each year, but the actual number may be more than twice as high. In an effort to better understand concussions and eventually improve helmet technology to better prevent them, some NFL players will be wearing helmets equipped with sensors that will monitor and record in real time every blow and bump they take to the head. A paging system alerts the team physician if a hit rises above a certain threshold. It's possible that with this data, helmets could be custom designed for specific positions on the field, with a lineman getting more protection around his forehead, for example. 

The sensor-filled head gear is the latest improvement in a protective technology that dates back to the 19th century. The first football helmet belonged to Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves who wore it in an Army-Navy game in 1893 in Annapolis, Maryland. A local shoemaker made the moleskin contraption after a Navy doctor warned Reeves that one more kick to the head might result in death or "instant insanity." Early aviation caps were based on the shoemaker's design.

For the next several decades, football helmets tended to be constructed of leather, with small innovations such as holes in the ear flaps for better hearing improved upon the design. They were slow to catch on. Glenn "Pop" Warner advised his players against them in 1912, explaining that "playing without helmets gives players more confidence."


In 1939, the Riddell sporting goods company (still one of the top football-helmet manufacturers) made the first plastic football helmet, but because of wartime plastic shortages, such helmets were not widely adopted for several years. That same year, colleges began requiring their players to don helmets. The NFL followed suit four years later.

For the first few years, one team's helmets were indistinguishable from the next. But in 1947, Fred Gehrke, a halfback and defensive back for the then-L.A. Rams had the idea of painting the team's helmets a distinct color and adding a logo. Gehrke had majored in art at the University of Utah. His coach and the team's owner liked the idea, and during the summer before the 1948 season, Gehrke painted all of the teams' 75 helmets, earning one dollar per paint job. He kept his blue and yellow paint in his locker and would touch up the scuffed helmets after each game (those of the lineman required frequent attention).

Helmets today still use the same basic plastic shell with internal padding that players wore in the post-war period. Since the 1970s, standards for ensuring the strength of helmets have been phased in, and skull fractures and fatalities from a single blow to the head have decreased. However, the official guidelines from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) do not address concussions.  A test developed by Virginia Tech ranked 10 of the top helmet models for concussion prevention, but that test has not been incorporated into the official standards. The leading helmet companies do not disclose their own testing data, insisting that they would be misinterpreted by the public.


Images: 1. Reuters; 2. Library of Congress, American Memory Collection; 3.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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