By Sam Cortes, Communications Coordinator
There is no harder hitting game in the world today than football. I’m sure there would be some people who would disagree with this statement, some might say it is rugby. In football, however, players tend to throw caution to the wind knowing they have safety equipment on.
Imagine a linebacker measuring up a running back coming down hill, full-speed and both weighing over 200lbs. That is one massive collision with a lot of weight getting thrown around. So, needless to say, the equipment you wear to protect yourself is very important… especially helmets – unless you want your skull to get mashed like a potato.
The First Helmets
Helmets have not always been a part of the game, though. Starting way back in the early 1900s, most players did not even wear them, and if they did, the helmets they used didn’t do much to protect the noggin. Let’s just assume that the majority of players at this time suffered from some gruesome head injuries..
One of the most popular stories told about the first helmet worn in a game took place in 1893, played between the Navy and the Army. It was literally just a moleskin hat with earflaps sewn together and was worn by a player who had his shoemaker design it for him. The reason why he had it created was because his doctors told him if he took another hit to the head, it would lead to instant insanity. Excellent diagnosis, doc! Even after that moment, helmets were a scarcity and not worn regularly until the 1920s as they were not mandatory.
The 20s, 30s & 40s
In the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, we have a few photos from our image archives depicting an individual from the 20s with a helmet. You will notice there is not much difference between that helmet and helmets from the 30s and 40s. In those 20 or so years, there were only different variations of the leather helmet. The padding on the helmet did not get any better and the face was still exposed.
In the late 30s, a man by the name of John Riddel invented a plastic helmet that was deemed to be much safer than its earlier counterpart. There was a bit of a problem, however.
Due to WWII, plastic was tough to acquire, so mass production of these were put on hold until after the war. Once these plastic helmets were rolled out with some consistency, another problem occurred: many of these helmets broke into pieces on contact due to an issue with the plastic mixture.
The NFL at this time acted swiftly and banned the plastic helmet until the problem was fixed. Imagine that, taking a hit from an opponent and having your helmet smash into pieces. This, I am sure, led to a whole lot of other injuries. Lacerated face, anyone?
Over the next couple of years, padding was added to the plastic helmets to offer more protection. In our collection at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, we have some helmets that were used in the 1940s. The one below belonged to Saul Rifken of the St. John’s Grads (1948-49 season).
Although helmets started to improve by the 50s with plastic and more padding, there still was nothing protecting the face. Often players would still end up with black eyes, a broken nose or a mangled mouth.
That was until 1955 when a helmet with one single bar was invented to protect the face. Back then, this may have seemed like a revelation, but let’s be honest, there was still a lot of open face to get bloodied up.
This particular helmet in the photo was worn by a player on a Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame Honoured Member Team, The St. Vital Bulldogs. They were a mini dynasty on the Manitoba football scene in the 50s and 60s. They won several National Championships and were runners-up as the best amateur club on a few occasions as well.
The 60s Onward
From the 60s onward, the single bar helmet was adapted and became more complex with its face guards. There were also innovations done on the material used and how best to add padding on the interior of a helmet.
By the 80s, different materials like polycarbonate and aluminum were combined with plastic to form the exterior. This made the helmets stronger, but also lighter.
Today, all players that play professional or amateur football in sanctioned leagues wear helmets that are light and protect the entire head, some of them even have visors.
With the amount of research done over the last several years, it is imperative that the football helmet keeps up and improvements are continuously made.
“Helmet use in various sports are to prevent skull fractures and lacerations to the scalp,” said Rickie Walkden, Sport Manitoba Clinic Director. “Making sure that helmets are intact with no damage is an important part in protecting the head. The development of this type of equipment has been important in mitigating against severe injuries to the skull itself.”
It is easy to see why it was important for this piece of equipment to be enhanced over time.
Obviously, we would not want our brains to be looking like the inside of those watermelons that those Saskatchewan Roughrider fans seem to put on their heads regularly.
This last photo shows a game-worn Blue Bomber helmet in our collection from the mid 2000s. As you can see, there are major improvements than what was originally designed – we sure have come a long way from moleskin hats with ear flaps.