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.