Soft Leather Football Helmets, the first evolution in head protection for the NFL

In a previous article, the first in the series on the evolution of the football helmet, we discussed the time period when the game was played without any kind of head protection. It was an interesting thought process to go through; how would the game be different, would injuries go up or down, would tackling be different, etc. In this article we are looking at the time period starting around 1920ish when players started wearing soft leather helmets, generally with no face mask.

These helmets appeared in the sport around the same time as the NFL was formed. Prior to the use of these helmets some players would attempt to protect their head by growing long hair for the cushion it might offer. That didn’t prevent player deaths from occurring. While the helmetless play, and even the soft leather helmets were used in a different time one thing that is sometimes forgotten is that during this time period people would be killed by injuries received during the game.

In one case there was a kid with a broken back who took two days to die, other cases it was severe blows to the head, but deaths from the sport almost caused it to be banned on college campuses and if that had happened the NFL would have never been formed, or if it had been formed likely would have been disbanded early on.

Let’s get back to the soft leather helmets.

There are a number of “stories” concerning the first ever helmet. Who built it? Who wore it? Why?

The most common of these is that the very first one ever was built by a shoemaker. That craftsman was trying to protect a player who had been kicked in the head one too many times and caused him to start to behave like a boxer who blocked one too many punches with his face. Whoever did it and why they did it isn’t really important. The point is that someone had the thought that all the head injuries, and some of the fatalities that the sport was experiencing might be reduced if something was done to protect the old melon up on the shoulders.

These helmets were made out of soft leather, somewhat similar to some types of boots, with a bit of padding sewn into them to increase the shock absorption. They had flaps that came down over the ears, and left ear holes, just like the modern helmets. These ear holes help players hear what is going on, at least back then. In a modern stadium with all the crowd noise hearing what is going on is always a challenge.

This particular helmet evolution did enough to get some measure of safety, or at least comfort level, with the sport so that it could be formalized into the NFL and more colleges would start to have organized teams. Would the NFL exist today without this evolution? Well…maybe. Was it safer to play the game with these helmets than with nothing on your head? Yes, it was. The number of fatalities went down. They offered protection without offering a sense of invincibility (which some people have said the modern helmets give).

Would the game be better if we brought back something along these lines? Would it be safer?

Probably not, but can we learn from the way injuries were reduced, take the lessons learned from this bit of technology and work towards a safer future? We should always learn from history.


Football with no helmet? Evolution of the helmet part 1…

Why aren’t coaches, trainers, and various football organizations doing more to protect players, especially from head injuries? That is an interesting question, and one asked more often than it once was. In order to figure that out we decided to look into the evolution of the football helmet, what it is made of, and how well it works to protect the head from injury.

First, let’s remember that the American style of the sport has been around since the 1860s. Think about that, it has been with us more than a century and a half. That is a long time, and it has evolved greatly from the stand point of rules, perception, and safety equipment. Let’s dive in and look at helmets as they have changed, and when they first appeared.

Starting in these earliest games the players did not wear helmets. It was a much different game, there was protective head gear. Nothing, nada, zip, zero. When you stepped onto the field to face the very large men on the other team who wanted to throw you to the ground, there was nothing on your melon. Now, is that a good or a bad thing? Well, as we discuss the various styles of helmets, opinions on that matter may change.

You may think no helmet was a good idea, you may think even larger, more protective helmets are. We are not here to sway an argument, merely to give you facts from the perspective of how these different helmets function, what injuries were common during their use, and how they integrate into the game from the player perspective.

The era of no helmets


When football first came on the scene it was mainly played between colleges, and there wasn’t any kind of professional “get paid to play” organized version of the sport. As anyone can tell you when there isn’t a profit motive the budgets for organizing the sport are considerably smaller. Just look at the safety equipment budget difference between a university, a high school, and the NFL. There is a considerable difference in the cost, and level of performance of the various safety equipment used during gameplay.

We can assume when the sport was new, no one really understood what injuries might happen and what equipment was needed to improve player safety. That, coupled with the low budgets to non-existent budgets to pull together a game, let to people just getting dress, and heading out to the field.

This era didn’t last long, as the first use of a helmet we can find was in 1893 during and Army Navy game in Annapolis. Were head injuries common during this period of time? It is really hard to tell. There was no tracking of the players, no collection of doctor’s reports, and medicine was much different then than it is now. Could a concussion have even been accurately diagnosed? Considering that concussions were not fully understood by medical professionals at this time, the likelihood is low.

Now, let’s look at it from the gameplay standpoint. Would someone not wearing a helmet tackle another person in the same way as one wearing a helmet? I think a quick examination of rugby (a similar sport that has optional helmets) says no. Could a switch in tackling technique lower the rate of injury, and allow the game to be just as much fun to play, and for us to watch?

Well, let’s look at a rugby tackle versus an NFL “welcome to the gridiron” style tackle.


Remember, Rugby players, for the most part, don’t wear helmets. Their tackling style, as a result, is much different. They use their arms and have a much different target point on the ball carrier. In this sport players are taught to take their use their body to wrap up around the legs of the ball carrier. This is in stark contrast to football as the two players heads never really enter into the equation. The only time a head may be in jeopardy is when the players, as a jumble, hit the ground (recall also rugby is on grass not artificial turf, and don’t get us started on turf just yet). This is hugely different than an American Football tackle.

In the games we all watch on Sundays the typical tackling technique is different. It is sometimes called the “head across the bow” method. In this version of football, oftentimes, the tackling is aimed differently. Sure, there are times when someone grabs a foot or a leg to trip a guy up, but those aren’t the tackles that typically cause the most severe injury. Lots of tackles are aimed at the chest with the defensive player forcing their head across the chest of the ball carrier. Sometimes that head is forced up, and you get a helmet on helmet collision.

The force of these collisions is huge. Two NFL level football players when added together will have a combined weight of four hundred to five hundred pounds. If they are moving at full speed, well, it’s going to hurt, with or without pads. So, could a change in tackling technique make the difference in these injuries? Maybe it could. If we took away players helmets AND taught a different tackling technique would that make it safer? Well, who knows, but I guarantee you defensive guys would be much more selective in how they tackled, and would certainly not “use their heads” as much as they do with those helmets in place.

We leave it up to you to think about these things, and come to your own conclusion. This is merely offered to kick start a discussion revolving around the best way for players to play the game, and be able to go home in the same condition they showed up to the field.

Gronkowski gets 1 game suspension, WHERE ARE ALL THE GROWNUPS!!!

Gronkowski is a walking talking moron that demonstrates exactly what is wrong with the nation these days in more ways that are immediately noticeable.

We all know that he had a late hit in last week’s game that was absolutely out of line.

If you aren’t familiar with it see my post on that topic:

The NFL official statement written by Jon Runyan, Vice President of football operations said the following:

“Your actions were not incidental, could have been avoided and placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury. The Competition Committee has clearly expressed its goal of ‘eliminating flagrant hits that have no place in our game.’ Those hits include the play you were involved in yesterday,”

Gronkowski after the game apologized and then made some really weak excuse about “frustration.” Yeah, ok, it’s the fourth quarter, the Patriots are clearly going to win, so I get the frustration? Is there a sarcasm emoji on this thing?

This is a picture of Gronk after the game. Does he look sorry?


So Gronk gets a 1 game suspension, and he appealed that. 1 game. That’s it. My mother used to ground me for longer than that for being 20 minutes late on curfew (ok that was almost 30 years ago but still).

This isn’t about right or wrong, it isn’t even about sending a message or stopping this kind of behavior. Gronk gets people to tune in. This is about ratings and money. The owners want him to play so their TV deals can be more profitable, that’s all this is.

Sit down Gronk, be a man (for once), own up to what you did and do more than an apology you were forced to give. I expect more of my 8 year old than that.

Tre’Davious White versus the freight train

This website is about injuries, how they happen, when they happen and how they might be prevented in the future.

Sometimes this is educational for players, other times this is equipment oriented. Whatever the mechanism to stop the injury, we want to discuss it here, openly and honestly.

This weekend there was a very cheap shot thrown by one Rob Gronkowski.

gronk hit

The hit in question came after a play ended; Tre’Davious White was on the ground, face forward, half out of bounds. Anyone in their right mind would have known the play was over, and let’s also take a moment to point out that the whistle had blown. (Yes there was a flag on the play, and we know that, it isn’t the point).

Mr. White was injured. He got up very slowly, and immediately left the game to go into the concussion protocol. When Tre’Davious White took off his helmet his eyes were closed and he obviously had problems to cope with. The concussion protocol was exactly the right move.

Gronk stayed in the game.

So, there is the situation, now let’s look at the mechanics of what happened.

Mr. Gronkowski weighs around 265 pounds; add to that his equipment and you have a 275 pound missile that threw himself at the head of another player.

When you look at hits, and I designed military armor for a living for a while, you want to have a hit that is spread out over a large area. It means the impact is lessoned. Look at a bullet; they are shaped to a point, so that the impact is greater on a tiny area. Spread that impact out over a larger area and it doesn’t penetrate as far, or do as much damage.

So, what does this have to do with Mr. Gronkowski? A lot.

Look at the hit.

The man he hit, Tre’Davious White, weighs 192 pounds. Compare that to Gronk, and you have a large mass hitting a smaller mass. We all understand the physics of that.

Now, let’s go one step further and look at what Gronk did. He threw himself through the air, like a bullet, at Tre’Davious White’s head. Worse than that, he extended his elbow to intentionally drive his entire weight, moving quickly through the air, into the man’s head.

Now, let’s look more closely at Mr. Gronkowski’s safety equipment.  He was wearing an elbow brace with metal rods sticking out beyond his actual elbow. This safety equipment is what hit the back of Tre’Davious White’s head, and not Gronk’s actual wrist. So, put another way, Gronk didn’t feel a thing from this collision.

So, now let’s get back to the target in this case, the rookie Tre’Davious White. He didn’t see the hit coming, had no chance to brace for impact, and thereby the full force of the impact was going to be felt. It hit the back of his helmet full force, pile driving his head into the dirt.

Ok, the helmet will stop his head from being crushed, but let’s think about the physics for a second.

Sir Isaac Newton taught us this thing called conservation of energy. That means energy from something doesn’t just disappear, it is going to go someplace. In this case if you watch the video, the young Mr. White was hit in the head, hyperextending his neck, causing certainly some whiplash, his head bounced off the ground. So let’s see what all of this means.

Let’s focus on the head for a minute. The human brain is not attached to the skull in any way. It floats in a fluid. I was researching traumatic brain injury in soldiers when I met, on many occasions medical doctors specializing in brain trauma. We were discussing how to make helmets that can protect soldiers from head injuries. I learned a lot about how the brain and the body interact.

Anyway, the point is the brain isn’t connected and floats in this fluid. So they tell me, when dehydrated, you can get a headache caused by this fact. However, in the case of whiplash like you see going on with Tre’Davious White his head bounced around a few times in rapid succession after the childlike hit by Gronk. That means that his brain hit one side of his skull, then the other side, and back again a few times.

If you think that isn’t a problem, I have some beachfront property to sell in Arizona.

So, now let’s look at his neck. His neck took a great deal of force from this hit. The spine is a big part of that piece of your body. His spine also took a great deal of this hit. If damage (any level) of how that damage occurred between his spine and his brain his motor skills can be impacted.

In short, Gronk’s antics likely caused a concussion, could have damaged motor skills, and has taken a first year player and may have destroyed some of his career moving forward.

How can this have been prevented? Would safety equipment have made a difference? Maybe, but there are two ways this might have been changed.

My guess is that Gronkowski knew he wouldn’t feel a thing thanks to the brace on his arm. So, why not use that to your advantage? That piece of equipment can be, and was used as a weapon. Perhaps that type of brace, while keeping Gronkowski safe should be reviewed as something that shouldn’t be allowed for the obvious reason.

Now, let’s look at Tre’Davious White’s equipment. Can something be designed to have protected him in this case? Well maybe, but is that necessary.

I think in this case the league has an opportunity here that can prevent future injuries. Fining Gronkowski isn’t going to help. A quick google search shows that he lives off endorsements and saves 100% of his NFL salary making his net worth in excess of $16Million, so fining him, while it makes a great headline, doesn’t help much.

You want to stop this kind of thing and prevent a future injury of this short the league can send a message. Take the guy who is on the current iteration of Madden whatever software, take an offensive player the Patriot’s lean on and suspend him for a very long time. The Patriots will fight that, but if I were the owner (a.k.a. Employer) of a guy who did this, I’d fire him. I don’t care how many games it costs it does not send a good message to the fans, and REALLY doesn’t send a good message to the countless young players just entering the game, hoping to make it to the NFL that watch Gronk and want to be like him.

We need to end these types of antics, and keep players safe. Gronk needs to be dealt with, and I wish Mr. Tre’Davious White a speedy recovery.

Gronkowski is a child, a bully, and a moron wrapped into one

Gronk…Gronk…Gronk…I have been a New England Patriots fan for a while. I moved to the Boston area about ten years ago in pursuit of the woman I love, and even though I left that area for Dallas where I now reside, I have remained a Patriots fan. I take heat for it, but I’m there in the camp of the Pats every week.

Gronk, you pissed me off.

This hit, childlike behavior, it is not professionalism; it isn’t even sportsman like conduct. Dude, seriously what were you thinking.

With all the head injuries, all the CTE, all the crap that players endure to bring the viewing public a relaxing afternoon you risk Mr. White’s health because you didn’t like something that happened. This is the kind of thing a school yard bully does.

I know they won’t because you are a great player, but if I owned the team I’d release you immediately. Winning is important but so is the ability of other people to go home after a game to their families. Grow up Gronk. You may have cost the Patriots more than one member of their fan base with this. I hope it made you feel better, because the NFL has taken enough hits of late, you need to learn to operate as an adult.