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Protected Development: A Century of Football-Helmet Innovation

1893 » After a doctor says he risks “instant insanity” if he takes another kick to the head, Navy player Joseph “Bull” Reeves dons a leather cap (crafted by a cobbler) that is believed to be football’s first headgear.

1896 » Concerned about “cauliflower ear,” George Barclay of Lafayette College has a harness-maker produce headgear with earflaps, giving rise to the leather “head harness” helmet style (top left).

1917 » University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke innovates a next-gen version of the leather helmet, with exterior and interior layers separated by cloth, which helps absorb impact.

1935 » Vern McMillan, a sporting-goods retailer in Terre Haute, Indiana, invents the first facemask (though it is not widely adopted).

1939 » The John T. Riddell Company produces the first plastic helmet (left). The NCAA mandates the use of helmets for all players in the same year. The NFL will officially adopt plastic helmets in 1949.

1955 » Single-bar facemasks first appear on NFL helmets. By 1962, every NFL player will wear face protection.

1971 » Riddell softens head blows by putting air-filled bladders in helmet interiors.

Bert Jones1975 » NFL players begin wearing multi-bar “birdcage” facemasks (worn by former Baltimore Colts QB Bert Jones, pictured at right).

1986 » Harder, more-durable polycarbonate helmets begin to replace their plastic forebears.

2002 » Riddell develops the “Revolution” helmet, designed specifically to reduce concussions, including protection for side impacts.

2011 » The “360” helmet is introduced by Riddell, incorporating such features as a flexing facemask and enhanced occipital padding for additional concussion protection.


Damage Control

Read “Damage Control,” the IM feature about two Purdue researchers’ pioneering studies on football head injuries—and the new technologies they’re developing to help.

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue.

Images courtesy legendaryauctions.com, Indianapolis Colts, and Riddell

Since first joining Indianapolis Monthly in 2000, West has written about a wide range of subjects including crime, history, arts and entertainment, pop culture, politics, and food. His feature stories have twice been noted in the Best American Sports Writing anthology and have received top honors from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The Collapse,” West’s account of the 2011 Indiana State Fair tragedy, was a 2013 National City and Regional Magazine Awards finalist in the category of Best Reporting. He lives on the near-east side.

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