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Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Updated: February 15, 1:41 PM ET
Helmet of the future? Or just a bizarre oddity?

By Paul Lukas
Page 2

Uni Watch
The NFL season is over, but Uni Watch is already thinking ahead to next season, because there may be a major new development on the helmet scene. According to the cover story in a recent issue of Machine Design magazine, the upstart Protective Sports Equipment company -- the same firm that brought us the ProCap anti-concussion accessory, which was worn by Steve Wallace and Mark Kelso back in the 1990s -- is working with the league to develop a new helmet concept, called the Gladiator.

The Gladiator supposedly provides superior protection (for details, check out the article's full text here and here), although Uni Watch suspects most pro gridders would rather get a concussion than wear something so nerdy-looking. But whether the newfangled lid catches on or not, it probably won't be the last word in the design of the football helmet, which has gone through more evolutionary stages than any other sports accessory. In fact, Uni Watch has been rummaging through some archival clips that make it clear just how circuitous the helmet's history has been, full of false starts, unlikely detours, and counterintuitive tangents.

After sorting through a bunch of these old articles, a few consistent themes become apparent:

1. The switch from leather to plastic was controversial. The plastic helmet was patented by Riddell in 1939, but materials shortages caused by World War II delayed its introduction until 1944, when the Army football team took the field in the new synthetic design. You'd think it would be obvious that a plastic helmet would be superior to a leather model, but coaches and medical authorities began complaining almost immediately that the hard, unforgiving surface posed a danger to other players. Newspaper articles show that the plastic helmet was often blamed for injuries, and doctors quickly called for the plastic design to be outlawed because it turned a player into a dangerous missile. This led the NFL to ban plastic helmets in 1948, but the prohibition was reversed the following year. More than a decade later, in 1961, the Los Angeles Times published several articles indicating that the plastic/leather debate was still very much alive.

These concerns led Spalding to unveil a new helmet design, featuring a padded outer crown, in 1962. Other manufacturers quickly followed with their own versions, and the padded designs were used by several collegiate programs, including Oklahoma and Ohio State (additional info here), and also in the pro ranks by Chiefs great Willie Lanier (more photos and info here). Subsequent safety testing revealed that the exterior padding was causing neck injuries due to the increased helmet-to-helmet and helmet-to-ground friction, so the unadorned plastic shell eventually emerged as the consensus choice.

Gladiator Helmet
The Gladiator helmet supposedly provides superior protection from concussions. But will players wear it?
2. Facemasks weren't exactly a slam dunk, either. Improvised facemasks date back to the 1920s, but masks didn't come into widespread use until Browns quarterback Otto Graham was elbowed in the jaw during a 1953 game against the 49ers (or, as one Ohio newspaper put it, he "went through the sausage grinder out on the coast") and later returned to the game wearing a clear plastic "U" engineered by coach Paul Brown. Helmet manufacturers soon started making facemasks out of Lucite or plexiglass, and Brown manadated them for his team the following season. By October 1954, the clear plastic mask was being described in this article as "one of the fastest-moving items of football equipment in the catalogues of the nation's leading sporting goods houses." But the clear bars eventually proved too brittle and were outlawed around 1957, so most players used metal "birdcage"-stye facemasks, similar to the ones still used today.

Wearing some kind of facemask -- plastic, metal, whatever -- might seem like a no-brainer, but coaches and doctors saw problems: The protruding mask, they said, was essentially a lever or handle that subjected a player's neck to tremendous torque whenever the mask was impacted during a hit or grabbed by an opposing player. And an upward hit on the mask's underside could force the helmet's back edge into the player's spinal column (a problem that eventually led to the development of the neck bumper). As late as 1961, NCAA coaches were actually calling for the facemask to be banned, on the basis that it caused more injuries than it prevented.

3. There was some freaky-deeky stuff going on out there. Wanna see something weird? Check out this 1951 article, about a form-fitting mask similar to the one Rip Hamilton wears in the NBA. Or this guy, who came up with a primitive helmet-cam setup in 1955 (full details here). Or this 1948 item, which describes a transparent helmet that "makes the player's head look like it's wrapped in cellophane."

Unfortunately, there were no photos of these clear helmets, so Uni Watch got in touch with Curtis Worrell, the man behind the mighty Helmet Hut site, who provided a wealth of background info and photos:

"All early helmets from Riddell 1939 to about 1954 were clear and were painted from the inside. In 1954 Riddell moved from Tenite to Kra-lite, a polymer that was harder and no longer clear. Remember, the helmet was given to the military first because of the war, and then Riddell went to his original plans and started using it for college and then pro. Of course, the military painted theirs khaki and used non-reflective black rivets (no sense drawing attention to yourself when you parachute down)."

So what about the clear helmets mentioned in that newspaper item? "The clear helmets were never intended to be used on the field as clear," says Worrell. "But the transparent shell was useful at sales events because it showcased Riddell's high-tech suspension system. One added bonus: no paint chips! Just buff them up and they're ready to go again. But it's just too hard and cumbersome to paint and decal a helmet from the inside."

As for the Gladiator, Worrell is skeptical: "No one will wear it, because it's not cool. Image is everything in sports these days." True enough, although that didn't stop the handful of players who wore the ProCap (forever ridiculed as "the Great Gazoo helmet"). Let's just hope the Gladiator holds up better than the ProCap, which got pretty skanky with repeated use.

(Extra-special thanks to Doug Mooney for his archival research and to Nicole Haase for the copy of Machine Design magazine.)

Football's last gasp
According to the ratings, only 23 people watched the Pro Bowl on Sunday (and four of them were actually Chad Johnson TiVo-ing the game on four separate TVs, so he could watch himself in "quadrovision" the next day), so you probably missed some of the game's more notable uni-related developments. Want to get caught up? Look here.

Paul Lukas thinks those old Lucite facemasks are the coolest. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and his Page 2 archive is here. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.