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.

NFL – Business, Politics, or What?

I, like everyone else, has heard about the NFL and players kneeling, and political arguments, and boycots, and and and, all season long.

Oh, the President tweeted this, Jerry Jones is arguing over who runs the league, blah blah.

Then you tune into the game, and there is political stunt after political discussion after advertising advertising advertising.

When I was a kid, watching games with my dad, they were exciting, I looked forward to it, it was….fun.

It isn’t fun anymore.

Now, let’s touch on the sensitive issue. Race relations.

Because I’m white and the majority of players are African American, someone is going to say “You are just telling them to perform for you” and somehow the N word I won’t use, and wouldn’t use in person, is in that phrase.

I don’t have a racist bone in my body and that isn’t at all what I’m saying.

I’m saying I get limited time off work. I have limited time with my family. I want to have FUN with the time I get to spend with them, or am not at work. Operative word fun.

All too often when I tune into professional sports I hear about this contract value, that contract negotiation (always focused on money, and frankly I don’t care). The highlight reels are shrinking in attention and its all about this controversy or that one.

It isn’t fun for me.

It used to be. It was what I looked forward to on Sunday. I had a blast. I no longer do.

If I wanted to listen to a political discussion/argument I would tune to any of the bazillion news stations out there.

On a Sunday with my kids that isn’t what I want. Not at all.

I want fun.

So, there are other things in life I enjoy. I’m not bound to watch football, there is no requirement that I do so, therefore I am not. So, what am I to do? I go to the next most fun thing on the list, and we do that.

Therefore, I and many other Americans are turning the station. For me, not for all, but I suspect for many, that if you bring back the fun, the eyeballs will come back to the screen and the ratings will go up.

My conversation with a Retired NFL Player

I had the chance yesterday to talk to a retired NFL player on a variety of topics.

In addition to writing books (which I very much enjoy) I am a scientist. As such I solve problems. That’s what is the most misunderstood thing about scientists. We aren’t magical, we don’t have some huge insight no one else has. We have a variety of problem solving tools and it is all a matter of what problem you focus on.

So, the problem in the back of my mind ever since my son broke his arm is protective equipment for sports.

Speaking on condition of anonymity the man I was talking to retired in the mid 80s and was on a team that won the Superbowl during his years (he was a starter).

He mentioned something multiple times that is kind of disturbing. Safety of players (down to high school) is not necessarily about keeping players safe and having a good time as a fan. It is about money.

How do I know?

Simple, I have been looking at injury statistics from an angle that I don’t suspect anyone has before. Head injuries are a real focus for the league, or so they claim. Why is it they are giving it lip service and perhaps not doing everything they can? Why do I believe that?


Why do I say that?

Concussions happen more often on any other surface other than natural turf. On real grass the rate of head injuries does seem to go down, at least from what I can tell on publicly available injury data.

This was confirmed by the retired player.

He then explained to me why artificial turf got started. It had NOTHING to do with playing the game. It had everything to do with maintenance cost. It is cheaper for an owner to put in artificial turf than natural grass due to the maintenance. So, in other words, to squeeze out a slightly higher margin on their monthly profit statement, they put in turf that can and has been known to hurt the very players we all want to go watch.

I suspect I will be posting more on this subject soon. I’m not sure if this series will become a “how to fix injuries” series or a “NFL profit machine” series or a “players vs owners” series but one of those three is likely to happen as I dig into this.