Amateur and professional football players alike wear protective gear to reduce the likelihood of sustaining injury while playing the game of football. The football helmet with its chin strap, face mask, and optional mouth guard is one example of protective gear.
The football helmet serves an aesthetic purpose as well. Because the helmet bears the team's logo, it serves as a trademark. Credit goes to the Los Angeles Rams as being the first football team to design graphics for their helmets. The Rams horns still adorn their helmets, letting their opponents know they are not afraid to butt heads with them.
The first helmets, circa 1915, were basic, leather headgear without face masks. With their flat top design, they bore a strong resemblance to the soft leather headgear worn by today's wrestlers. The design of these helmets primarily protected the players' ears; yet, without ear holes, this type of helmet made on-field communication virtually impossible.
Helmets with harder leather to help protect the skull first started making an appearance during World War I. In the ensuing years, increasingly harder leathers were used to provide even greater protection. During the same time frame, the first fabric cushioning came on the scene to help absorb the shock brought upon by collisions. Helmet makers also began to phase out the flat top design, replacing it with a more oval shape. The advantage to this new shape was it allowed for blows to the head to be deflected to one side, rather than forcing the top of the head to absorb most of the impact.
Football helmet design took a giant step in 1939 when the John T. Riddell Company introduced plastic helmets. This also led the way for a redesign of helmet straps, which to this point, were designed to be affixed around the neck. The redesign called for the straps to attach to the chin.
Within 10 years, leather helmets became obsolete. Two other significant events took place in the 1940s. The National Football League (NFL) made football helmets required equipment, and the first face mask was developed.
Since the 1970s, football helmets have taken on another role—that of souvenir. Football fans have created demand for replica footballs of their favorite team, which can be found in virtually any store that specializes in sports memorabilia.
Materials used for the production of football helmets have evolved from leather, to harder leather, to molded polycarbonate shells, which are used today because of their strength and weight.
From the early flat top design without holes for ears to the more oval shape, probably the single innovation with the most impact on football helmet design took place in the early 1970s. Dr. Richard Schneider of the University of Michigan Hospital is reported to have believed that air was the most effective way to protect against blunt force. With this theory in mind, he invented an inflatable bladder for use inside a football helmet.
A prototype was developed and used by the University of Michigan team. It did not take long for the Bike Athletic Company to hire Dr. Schneider and begin mass producing the helmet, which today is known as Schutt Sport Group's AirTm Helmet.
The chin strap, which helps to secure the helmet to the player's head, began as straps designed to attach around the neck. The redesign of the straps to attach around the chin took place in 1939.
The face mask, which is usually made of plastic or metal bars, attaches to the front of the helmet. There are two types of face masks, the open cage and the closed cage. The open cage usually is preferred by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and defensive backfield men because the open cage—with two or three horizontal bars and no vertical bar above the nose—enables better visibility. The closed cage usually is the choice of linesmen because the closed cage—vertical bar running the length of the mask over the nose with two, three, or four horizontal bars—helps to keep other players' fingers and hands out of their eyes. In the 1970s, vinyl coating was layered onto the bars to protect against chipping and abrasions. Soon, colors were added to the face masks as another way to distinguish players and teams.
The logo of a player's team usually adorns both sides of the helmet.
In the 1970s, a group known as NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) established performance standards for football helmets, as well as prescribed verbage to go on the helmet itself. The NOCSAE warning label states that the helmet should not be used to strike an opponent. Such an action is against football rules and may cause severe brain or neck injury. Playing the game of football in itself can cause injury, and no helmet can prevent all such injuries. The warning also alerts players to use the helmet at their own risk. This NOCSAE warning was required to be placed inside every helmet. In 1983, the NOCSAE warning began to appear on the outside of every helmet.
Another design feature has been the use of radio receivers in the helmets so that coaches can relay plays to their signal callers. In order to bring the game closer to the fans, a "helmet-cam" also has been used so that fans get to see exactly what the players see on the field.
- The helmet outer shell is constructed of a tough plastic called polycarbonate alloy. The polycarbonate alloy arrives at the manufacturing plant in pellet form—in boxes of thermoplastic pellets, the size of bee-bees. The pellets are loaded into an injection-molding machine, melted, and forced into a cavity the size of a football helmet. It takes approximately one minute to mold one shell. Shells come in small, medium, large, and extra large sizes.
- The shell then drops out of the machine.
- Next, a multi-drill fixture drills 14-15 holes into the mold, a process that takes approximately 12-15 seconds to complete.
Next, protective air liners are produced. Certain rotationally-molded, one-piece liners are inflatable and are used in the helmet for obtaining proper fit and to aid in dispersing the energy imparted by an impact. Other specifically-engineered liners contain special foams and energy-attenuating or elastic materials. Like air, these materials are designed to absorb kinetic energy of movement and slow or decrease the impact of a blow to the head. The foam-based liners are made in several pieces—one is for the back, neck, and sides of the helmet and another is for the crown.
To produce the special foams required for the liner, large sheets of foam are die-cut to size. Then, the vinyl encasement is die-cut to size. A piece of vinyl is loaded into a vacuum former. The pieces of the die-cut foam are put into the vinyl and thermoformed to make an airtight seal. Another layer of vinyl is placed on top of the thermoform and the process is repeated.
The jaw pads, which are designed to fit below the earlobe, are affixed.
Different sizes or thicknesses are available.
- Face masks are then attached. There are several different styles of face masks. The face masks are made out of steel wire and coated with plastic. There also are three different versions of plastic face masks.
- The chin straps are then attached.
- The helmets can be painted in any one of the standard finished colors. There are over 50 standard colors to choose. More often however, the color finish is injection molded in at the time the shell is constructed. Decorative pieces such as decals are generally not applied by the manufacturer, but by the organization purchasing the helmets. The NFL does their own decaling as well.
- At the end of the assembly line, each helmet is subjected to inspection to ensure that the workmanship standards have been met. Only then would each helmet be placed in a poly bag and into a compartmented carton for shipment to the warehouse. Each helmet has a serial number inside the shell, and the corresponding serial number is affixed to the outside of the carton.
Helmet Reconditioning Process
Regularly-scheduled helmet reconditioning helps to ensure that each athelete is protected to the full extent of their equipment. This reconditioning process also helps to prolong the effective life of the helmet and reduce replacement costs.
- High-pressure nozzles spray cleaning and sanitizing solutions onto the helmet to dislodge dirt and disinfect it. Separately, interior protective linings and accessories are cleaned and sanitized.
- Using glass beads through a carefully controlled pressure sand-blaster, loose and chipping paint is removed. Air buffers and cotton-buffing wheels are used to remove decals and the adhesive residue that still remains.
- Pressure and flow control nozzles are used to apply paint uniformly to maximize paint adhesion.
- Face masks are removed and inspected, then reinstalled on the reconditioned helmet using corrosion-resistant hardware.
- After thorough cleaning and sanitizing, jaw pads and chin straps are inspected, then reinstalled.
- Each helmet is hand-buffed and wiped, both inside and outside, to maximize helmet shine and cleanliness.
- Each helmet is placed in a poly bag to keep it dust-free.
- Helmets are then placed in compartmented cartons, which are designed to protect the helmets during transit.
The material used for the helmet shell must meet the approved standard guidelines created by the NOCSAE. All incoming raw materials that are to be used in the manufacture of football helmets are subject to inspection. Once the helmets have been produced, three out of every 1,000 of every size and style are taken off the production line to the product testing lab where they are placed on a quasi-humanoid head form and subjected to a battery of impact tests. Approximately 10 to 15 helmets are tested per day.
A new helmet design that is being tested is a one-piece helmet/shoulder pad combination which may help to protect players by distributing force through the entire torso, not just the head and neck. This product is still in the testing stages. Protective Sports Equipment has developed a polyurethane safety accessory that is designed to attach to the football helmet to reduce the impact that can cause concussions. Upon impact, the ProCap returns to its original form. The design and material used in the manufacture of the ProCap allows for the absorption of more of the shock from a collision. Initial tests of the polyurethane safety accessory have had inconclusive results. Significantly more testing and evaluation will be done before this product is accepted.
Riddell said its research and development department listens to suggestions and demands made by those with a vested interest in the game of football. They are continually investigating new raw materials that will help to spread out or extend the decceleration time of impact when a helmet contacts another object. The round/teardrop configuration currently used slides off another helmet and as such, helps to guard against rotational injuries as opposed to the helmet shape wom by hockey players that can lock together.
Where to Learn More
Foehr, Donna Poole. Football for Women and Men Who Want To Learn The Game. National Press, Inc., 1988, pp. 97, 100, 101.
Ominsky, Dave and P.J. Harari. Football Made Simple: A Spectator's Guide. First Base Sports, Inc., 1994, pp. 10.
"A Symbol: Football's Most Prominent Tool has Evolved Along with the Sport." American Football Quarterly, October/November/December.
"Aging Helmets to be Sidelined." The Physician and Sportsmedicine, December 1990, p. 15.
"Football Caps Reduce Impact." Machine Design, January 8, 1993, pp. 16.
— Susan Bard Hall