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Publish date: Sep 23, 2010

The college football helmet has come a long way

By Jeff Miller
For NCAA.org

Today’s college football helmet got its start more than 100 years ago, when a player back in the age of “bare-headed” football was warned that one more inadvertent kick to his cranium might leave him senseless, or worse.

From leather helmets to modern hard plastic, from no facial protection to face masks and chin straps and mouth guards, the standard headgear now provides protection from serious injuries – some fatal – that were once accepted as part of the game.

“These helmets are incredibly efficient at protecting players from those life-threatening injuries that were a concern in the ‘60s all the way back to the ‘30s,” P. David Halstead said.

Halstead is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on football helmets and head injuries. He is technical director of the Southern Impact Research Center, located in Knoxville, Tenn., and has testified before Congress regarding helmet safety.

“I use the analogy of the automobile,” Halstead said. “In the 1970s, a collision at 30 to 40 miles per hour was an almost certain death sentence. Today, you fracture your ankle. The same is true of helmets.”

The evolution

Joseph M. Reeves is generally credited with being the first college football player to wear some form of protection on his head.

Reeves was a senior on Navy’s team in 1893 as the Midshipmen headed into their season-ending meeting with Army. Reeves, an Illinois native, had previously suffered some serious blows to the head. A doctor warned him that another could lead to catastrophic head injury, or worse.

So Reeves sought a form of protection that would allow him to play and found it thanks for a shoemaker right there in Annapolis, Md. The crude cap prevented Reeves from suffering another serious head injury.

That allowed him to go on and graduate, return as the Middies’ head coach in 1907, and reach the rank of admiral. He also took the idea of the crude helmet to help develop similar caps for pilots.

A player who was especially concerned about his looks took the early helmet a step further.

George Barclay
Photo Courtesy:
Lafayette College

George Barclay was a speedy halfback for Lafayette College in the mid-1890s. He was a key player when Lafayette claimed a share of the mythical national championship in 1896.

But Barclay was concerned the hits that he was taking to his bare head could lead to the development of cauliflower ears. That was unacceptable to a player nicknamed “The Rose.”

Barclay didn’t simply fret about it, though. A local harness maker pieced together three straps of thick leather placed on his skull down over his ears. He wore that on Oct. 24, 1896, when Lafayette handed Penn its only loss of a 15-game season, 6-4.

Another significant figure in the evolution of the helmet was longtime University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke. Head of the Fighting Illini from 1913 through 1941, he won four national titles and also came up with popular sayings known as “Zuppkeisms,” like: Never let hope elude you; that is life’s biggest failure.

Bob Zuppke
Photo Courtesy:
University of Illinois

In addition to being an excellent coach and dime-store philosopher, Zuppke was keenly interested in the improvement of athletics apparel and equipment. In 1917, his contribution was putting some space between the inside of the leather helmet and the player’s head with an additional layer of leather that provided suspension that absorbed some of the impact.

The face mask came along during the 1930s, brainchild of an Indiana sporting goods retailer named Vern McMillan. Still, the use of helmets remained optional in NCAA football until 1939.

That, coincidentally, was the year that production of plastic helmets began.

As helmets became more sophisticated, they began to be used more often to dole out punishment in addition to avoiding it. With a greater need to assess the worth of particular helmet brands, an industry group called the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) was formed in 1969. Four years later, the first NOCSAE standard was published.

In 1976, the NCAA employed its first rule penalizing players for striking opponents with the crown of the helmet or spearing. Two years later, the NCAA adopted the NOCSAE standard for approval of its member schools’ helmets.

The Severity Index (SI) value is a pass/fail threshold which is based on a number of scientific studies. Once a helmet performs below the 1200 SI threshold during testing, it meets the NOCSAE standard. Most new and recently reconditioned helmets test far below the threshold, generally averaging in the 600-800 SI range. Current data do not support using the SI numbers as a “sliding scale,” such that lower numbers reduce or prevent more injuries than higher numbers.

Protection against concussions

In recent years, debate has increased about helmet safety in connection with the growing concern over concussions. Halstead notes brain injuries are caused by linear and rotational acceleration – by direct impact and by the related jolt that might best be described as whiplash. While helmets manage linear acceleration well, he said, they can’t do much to protect a player from rotational acceleration.

“This will get a lot of people all upset,” Halstead said, “but helmets are as good as they can possibly be to manage the one event they were designed to manage, which is on-the-field skull fracture and sudden-death catastrophic injury.

“Do I think the helmet has become so comfortable that players are happy to use it as a weapon? Yes. That’s more a function of the governing body. There are rules, and they should be enforced.”

Fred Mueller

Fred Mueller of the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina is in Halstead’s corner when it comes to stricter enforcement of NCAA rules against helmet-to-helmet contact. In fact, he said stiffening the penalty might be the best way to decrease such instances.

“Maybe like soccer,” Mueller said. “You give a kid a yellow card the first time. If he does it again, he gets a red card (ejection). I’m sure that would be a hard thing to pass.”

The NCAA has implemented rules changes over the last few years that have expanded beyond the traditional notion of “helmet-to-helmet” contact and added a focus on all hits “targeting and contacting defenseless players above the shoulders.” This puts greater emphasis on player safety and makes penalty calling more clear. Recent rules changes also now allow a conference office to review game film of plays consider flagrant in nature but were not called during the game. That conference can then impose sanctions before the next game.

Bret Bielema

University of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema indicated increasing the penalty might not be such a tough sell. Early this season, he lost star returner David Gilreath to a concussion on a play that wasn’t ruled as helmet-to-helmet but resulted in the player being taken off the field on a stretcher and hospitalized overnight.

“Any coach is going to support player safety,” Bielema said. “That’s the utmost concern. I know they’re trying to get a handle on it. I know it’s a point of emphasis, but really, it’s not an exact science when you’ve got bodies moving as fast as they are. I do like the way it’s going now more so than ever before to be more aware of it and stricter on the enforcement.”

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer based out of DeSoto, Texas.