In 1920, the American Professional Football Association was formally organized. The league had eight teams with names that included the Canton Bulldogs, Dayton Triangles and the Chicago Cardinals. At that time the concept of protective headgear consisted mainly of stuffing a thick rag under your hat. In 1922, the APFA became the National Football League and headgear at that time had evolved to include some padding, but mostly on the outside. Since then, NFL helmets have seen several milestone transformations.
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The first helmets that saw widespread use in the NFL were made from leather. Basically, players wore the helmets to keep from having their hair pulled or losing an ear during a side-on collision. Lowering the head and using it as a bettering ram was reserved for the adventurous few.
Leather helmets absorbed water in wet climates and the cloth inner lining absorbed perspiration. Players in the early days of the NFL often found their leather helmet had hardened to a crispy texture overnight. In 1939, the founder of the Riddell Sports Company, John Riddell, developed the first plastic shell helmet that changed NFL headgear.
The first plastic shell helmets not only had a hard outer shell, but padding around the crown of the head. The game was getting faster, owners were drafting bigger players and collisions were more intense. By the late 1940s, leather helmets were collecting dust in NFL locker rooms.
Plastic helmets allowed players to lower their head without fear of being carried off the field. Riddell’s innovation had changed the way NFL football was played. Team owners liked plastic helmets because the hard shell was a billboard for the team’s logo. But changes in the way the game was played resulted in different types of injuries, which presented new obstacles to overcome in NFL helmet design.
Riddell’s equipment designers had developed the web suspension helmet during World War II. The helmets had internal bands and straps that kept the outer plastic shell away from the player’s head. The problem with the helmet was a lack of stability. Certain types of collisions dislodged the helmet and neck injuries were on the rise. After a brief stint in the league from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment determined suspension helmets were unsafe.
Other manufacturers of sports equipment, such as Wilson and Spaulding, got into the NFL helmet fray. Their headgear passed NOCSEA standards and numerous players received endorsements to promote their headgear. In 1997, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young suffered his third brain concussion in 10 months. Young switched to Riddell’s newest helmet that included pads at the temples and jawbone. Soon after, eight out of 10 NFL players were wearing Riddell headgear.
Today the Riddell Revolution, the Riddell Speed and the Schutt DNA-Pro are rated as the top helmets with regard to preventing concussions and neck injuries. But concussions still remain a major concern in the NFL. Rule changes and equipment designers may one day combine to eliminate the risk of head injury.