Football helmet

The helmet used by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1997-2013.

The football helmet is a piece of protective equipment used mainly in American football and Canadian football. It consists of a hard plastic shell with thick padding on the inside, a face mask made of one or more plastic-coated metal bars, and a chinstrap. Each position has a different type of face mask to balance protection and visibility, and some players add polycarbonate visors to their helmets, which are used to protect their eyes from glare and impacts. Helmets are a requirement at all levels of organized football, except for non-tackle variations such as flag football. Although they are protective, players can and do still suffer head injuries such as concussions.


members of a football team wearing old-fashioned leather helmets
Football team, turn of the 20th century


One of the first instances of football headgear dates to 1896 when Lafayette College halfback George "Rose" Barclay began to use straps and earpieces to protect his ears. It is not certain who invented the football helmet. Many sources give credit for the creation of the helmet to James Naismith, while other sources credit U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman Joseph M. Reeves (later to become the "Father of Carrier Aviation"), who had a protective device for his head made out of mole skin to allow him to play in the 1893 Army-Navy game. Reeves had been advised by a Navy doctor that another kick to his head would result in "instant insanity" or even death, so he commissioned an Annapolis shoemaker to make him a helmet out of leather.[1] Later, helmets were made of padded leather and resembled aviators' helmets or modern day scrum caps. At least in professional football, they were optional. Some National Football League players, notably Hall-of-Famer Bill Hewitt, played all or most of their careers without a helmet.

Early years

One innovation from the early 1900s period was hardened leather. 1917 marked the first time helmets were raised above the head in an attempt to direct blows away from the top of the head. Ear flaps also had their downfall during this period as they had little ventilation and made it difficult for players to hear. The 1920s marked the first time that helmets were widely used in the sport of football. These helmets were made of leather and had some padding on the inside, but the padding was insufficient and provided little protection. In addition, they lacked face masks. As a result, injuries were very common. Early helmets also absorbed a lot of heat, making them very uncomfortable to wear.

A leather football helmet believed to have been worn by Gerald Ford while playing for the University of Michigan between 1932 and 1934.

In 1939, the Riddell Company of Chicago, Illinois started manufacturing plastic helmets because it felt that plastic helmets would be safer than those made of leather. Plastic was found to be more effective because it held its shape when full collision contact occurred on a play. These helmets were also much more comfortable and had more padding to cushion the head in an impact. Included with the plastic helmet came plastic face mask, which allowed the helmet to protect the entire head. By the mid-1940s, helmets were required in the NFL. They were still made of leather, but with improved manufacturing techniques had assumed their more familiar spherical shape.

Introduction of advanced materials

By the 1950s, the introduction of polymers ended the leather helmet era. The NFL also recommended face masks for players in 1955,[2] reducing the number of broken noses and teeth, but also necessitating new rules prohibiting opposing players from grabbing the face mask.

Modern helmets

2015 Cleveland Browns helmet

Inflatable padding

According to Andrew Tucker, football helmets adequately protected players from catastrophic brain injuries, but helmet manufacturers had motivation to design helmets that decrease the risk of concussions. Vin Ferrara, a former Harvard quarterback, accidentally discovered a new way to cushion football helmets. One night, Ferrara was looking for an aspirin when he saw a squirt bottle in his medicine cabinet. As he pumped it and then punched it, he realized that the bottle withstood the blows of different forces. Ferrara immediately came up with the idea to encase football helmets with a number of inflatable pockets in order to cushion the blows a football player receives to reduce concussions.


A more recent addition to the football helmet is the visor or eye shield, which is affixed to the face mask to protect players from glare or eye injuries, such as pokes. It is believed that the first player to use a protective visor Mark Mullaney of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings in 1984, in order to protect a healing eye injury. Top manufacturers of visors are Nike, Oakley, and Under Armour, with Leader being the first to come out with a visor/shield for former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon. While Mullaney and McMahon's visors were tinted, most of the earlier visors were clear or smoked, but they are now offered in a variety of styles ranging from blue, gold, black, rainbow, silver, or amber. High-school and pee-wee leagues prohibit all but clear visors. This rule was enacted so that training staff and coaches can easily view a player's face and eyes in the case of a serious injury, to discern if the player is conscious. The NCAA banned the use of tinted visors for the same reason, and the NFL has followed suit as well. However, players with eye problems may still obtain special permission to wear tinted visors, some notable examples being LaDainian Tomlinson and Chris Canty.[3]

Players from the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs wearing football helmets during a drill in 2004


Helmet shock data loggers and shock detectors monitor impacts a player receives, such as the force and direction of the impact. If the force recorded by the sensors is over 100 Gs, it signals a possible concussion. Some players will experience up to 2,000 of these potential concussion blows each season.This data is then analyzed by doctors. New rules have been implemented which instruct that any player who has a particularly high reading of force needs to be taken off the field and examined before they can play another down.


Two Ohio inventors devised a headset for Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown so he could radio plays in to his quarterback. It was banned shortly after its first use in 1956. The NFL approved use of headsets for all NFL teams in 1994. [4]

NFL rules state that all helmets equipped with headsets must have a visible green dot on the back. A few times in 2006, the holder on the field goal attempt was told to pull up and throw or run at the last second because of a change the coaches saw on the field. According to the NFL, this gave teams an "unfair advantage." The new rules let each team know who is wearing a headset and hearing the plays being called.

Recent designs

In 2002, American football equipment manufacturer Riddell released a new design of helmet called the Revolution.[5] The newer design was released in response to a study on concussions.

In 2007, Schutt Sports announced the arrival of a next generation helmet, the Schutt ION 4D. This next generation design was in response to the demand for a safer football helmet. The design includes an integrated face guard. This new face guard design features shock absorbing "Energy Wedges" that reduce the force of impacts to the face guard. College teams wearing the helmet include Air Force, Penn State, and Virginia.[6]

Safety research

NOCSAE certification

Rules in place for NFL, NCAA, and high school football require that all helmets be certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.[7][8][9] Reliance on NOCSAE certification has been criticized on numerous grounds, including that organization's control by equipment manufacturers causes a conflict of interest, testing data that focuses on skull fractures instead of concussions, and failure to take into account new research.[7][10][11]

Current research

There has been significant study/research regarding head injuries in football, as well as football helmet design in recent years. Kevin Guskiewicz, a professor at The University of North Carolina and a MacArthur Fellow, has for many years been researching concussions in football of all age groups.[12] He has been equipping UNC football helmets with accelerometers to measure impacts and concussions. Also, the NFL has awarded over $1.6 million in sports medical research, almost $1 million of which has been toward concussion prevention.[13] All this concussion prevention research has led football helmet manufacturers to develop safer products. A joint effort between Virginia Tech and Wake Forest has been testing current football helmets and giving them yearly ratings since 2011. On a scale out of 5 stars, only one helmet was awarded a 5 in 2011. In 2012, two additional helmet designs were awarded 5 stars.[14][15]

Other research

Neuroscientists at Ohio State University launched baseballs from air cannons at football helmets in order to simulate a kick or blow to the head such as a tackle. It was found that the helmets could withstand 2,500 Newtons or about 562 pounds of force.

Loss of helmets during play

The helmet will sometimes be wrenched from a player's head in the jostling of a play and leave the player vulnerable to injury.[16] Professional leagues as well as the NCAA have recently instituted rules calling for participation in play without a helmet to be deemed against the rules and/or play to be whistled dead in the event a helmet comes off. The NFL implemented a rule change from the 2010 season causing the play to be whistled dead when the ball carrier lost his helmet. The player shall sit out a play to be evaluated by both the team doctor and concussion specialist. Starting the 2014 season it became a point of emphasis.[17] A similar rule was introduced into the Canadian Football League in 2011.

One-bar face masks

The one-bar face mask was once common but its use has been supplanted in professional and amateur sport. For example, it has been illegal in the National Football League since 2004, but a grandfather clause allowed players who wore the mask prior to 2004 to continue to do so for the remainder of their careers. No current professional player currently wears such a face mask; the last player to do so was Scott Player, who last played professionally in 2009.

Typically, by the mid-1980s only placekickers and punters in professional football in Canada and the United States wore the one-bar face mask, a notable exception being quarterback Joe Theismann.

The one-bar had two different variations. The standard one-bar was made from nylon or other hard plastic and was bolted to both side of the helmet just in front of the earholes. There was a "snub" version that did not extend as far out in front of the helmet as the standard.

Face masks for football helmets today are multibar. The multibar facemasks are made of a number of materials including titanium, stainless steel, and most commonly carbon steel. Each facemask is coated with Polyarmor G17, a powder coating that is resistant to impact and corrosion. The Polyarmor is a thermoplastic coating used on a number of surfaces. While some organizations purchase new face masks every season, others have their equipment reconditioned.

Logo display

Canadian Football League

The longest continuous use of a logo in Canadian professional football is the running stallion logo of the Calgary Stampeders which was adopted in 1954 and has remained unchanged to the present day, with the exception of a black outline added to the artwork in 1972.[18]

National Football League

In 1948, the Los Angeles Rams were the first NFL team to put logos on their helmets; the basic "ram's horn" logo on the helmet has remained mostly the same, except for color, ever since. As of 2015 the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals are the last remaining NFL teams not using any form of primary logo on its helmets. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the only NFL team that puts its logo on only one side of the helmet (the right side).

See also



  1. "History of the Football Helmet". Past Time Sports. Retrieved 2011-02-02.
  2. Factory Made television program, segment entitled "Football helmets", Science Channel.
  3. Keep On Tickin’ Posted 2006-08-25: The NCAA hopes its new rules shorten games this season.
  5. Riddell: Product Detail
  6. Schutt ION-4D Who's in it?, football helmets, baseball, softball bats
  7. 1 2 Borden, Sam (September 20, 2012). "Despite Risks, N.F.L. Leaves Helmet Choices in Players' Hands". New York Times. Archived from the original on September 20, 2012.
  8. Hillman, Kay (2005). Introduction To Athletic Training. Human Kinetics. ISBN 9780736052924.
  9. Nelson, David M. (1994). The Anatomy of a Game: Football, the Rules, and the Men Who Made the Game. University of Delaware. p. 510. ISBN 9780874134551.
  10. Nowinski, Chris (2006). Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues. pp. 110, 116. ISBN 9781597630139.
  11. Culverhouse, Gay (2011). Throwaway Players: Concussion Crisis From Pee Wee Football to the NFL. Behler Publications. p. 79. ISBN 9781933016702.
  16. Sports Illustrated for January 15, 2007, includes photographs of Jeremy Shockey of the NFL's New Orleans Saints continuing to push for extra yardage in a playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, despite having lost his helmet during the play.
  17. "NFL: Owners approve new rules for safety". Philadelphia Inquirer. 2010-03-25. Archived from the original on March 28, 2010. Retrieved 2010-03-27.


External links

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