I, Eli Chesner, am glad to present to you my list of the 11 Coolest Helmets in Professional Football History. There are no concrete qualifications for this list; it rewards the traditional and the iconic, as well as the goofy and the peculiar. Bravery in design is also rewarded.
Because there's only room for so many, some great helmets were regrettably left off the list. I encourage you to list your own favorites in the comments, but if you're genuinely angry with the exclusion or placement of your favorite team's helmet,or if your favorite team isn't on here, I'd rather you spent that time talking to a therapist.
Redskins, '65 - '69
Denver Dynamite, Arena Football,1987
Eagles, '74 - '95
Orlando Thunder, WLAF, '91 - '92
I have no idea what the WLAF is by the way.
Another extremely bold choice in design. You don't see a lot of actual weather patterns depicted on helmets. Word is that they went this route instead of placing an actual Doppler Radar readout on the side of the helmet. That would probably not be as good as this one.
Most teams that have animal-themed helmets usually have that animal in a fierce, predatory pose on their helmet. The Panther looks like its growling at something. The Jaguar looks the same. The Cardinals new one looks meaner
The buffalo on the Bills helmet from '65-'73, however, is just kind of there. He could be asleep on his feet, he could be grazing, or he could be daydreaming about a herd of lady buffaloes (most likely choice). He seems like a very peaceful, non-aggressive character.
I think this is what happened: the Bills held open auditions for buffaloes to come in and pose for their helmet, but this was the only buffalo who showed up. And the photographer and team officials said to him, "Can't you act like you're going to stampede, or growl at someone, or at least stomp a hoof or something?"
And the Buffalo said, "Listen, fellas. I'm an unemployed buffalo. You're paying me in grass. And I'm hungover. I'm going to stand here, and if you want to take a picture of me, that's fine. But I'm not taking requests, and if you don't stop messing with me, I'm going to blow buffalo snot all over Jack Kemp."
In 1974, he was replaced with a leaping cartoon buffalo, either because the Bills wanted something a little more lively on their helmet, or because O.J. killed him.
Thats right, I'm putting Canadian teams on here also.
It might be a Packers rip-off, but if you're going to rip someone off, the Packers are a pretty good target. I love the interlocking 'E's in the logo, neatly surrounded by the tight green oval. It's a clean, tidy look that has barely changed over the past couple of years.
The Eskimos bring up an important point about the coolest helmets in the Shutdown Eleven. Obviously, everyone's going to have their own opinions on helmets, but it's not all about the look of the helmet. People are going to gravitate toward helmets that don't just look fresh, but also represent a certain time in their lives.
So if you're 15 years old and reading this, you might be thinking, "eh, it's just a couple of 'E's, who gives a damn?"
But when I see those 'E's, they represent a time when the Canadian Football League was on ESPN regularly and was actually a viable entertainment option. There was no PTI, no NFL Live, and no deals with major American sports leagues. We had Australian Rules Football. We had the American Wrestling Association, with Baron Von Raschke. I remember a lot of boxing and tennis, too.
These helmets were the cherry on top of of the best jerseys in sports history. But this isn't about the uniform as a whole, it's about the lids alone, and while these are still nice enough for the top ten, they're not quite elite.
The Browns, Broncos, Steelers, and Bills have all had helmets that featured a number on the side (all a long, long, long time ago), but the Chargers are one of the few teams ever to incorporate a number as well as a logo. It's a bold move, and the masculinity required to pull it off was belied by the powder blue of the jerseys themselves.
The inclusion of the Iowa Barnstormers on this prestigious list can be justified with two words: Snoopy and Googles.
If you think about all the other teams out there that are named after professions, none of them actually make the helmet look like the man is engaged in that profession.
But if you look at a Barnstormer at the side, it almost does look like they're wearing their goggles up on their forehead, much like the barnstormers of ... I don't know, whenever people were flying around and storming barns. It's genius.
The Tony the Tiger stripes are going to be a controversial selection here in the Shutdown Eleven, and I'm okay with that. Everyone I've unofficially polled has had a strong opinion on the Bengals lids; some hate them, some dig them. There's not a lot of gray area.
And I think that's a good thing. Part of being included on this list is a willingness to be bold. And these helmets are certainly that.
Especially when you consider that the Bengals went overnight from the least imaginative design in football history to one of the boldest. In 1980, it just said BENGALS on it. In a plain black font, with no stripe, no design, no logo ... nothing. How did they arrive at that decision?
"Hey, we're the Bengals. What should we have on the side of our helmets? No one? No one has any ideas? What about you? Yes, you, Lenny. The guy in the corner wearing chewing on his pinkies and wearing bib overalls and no shirt. What do you think?"
"We could just write 'BENGALS' on the side of the helmets."
And so it was.
Then in 1981, they went to the striped jobs, and they've stuck with them since. To be honest with you, I personally don't dig the orange and black color scheme, and it's not like I look at the Bengals helmets and say, "Yes, those are visually appealing." I actually find them quite ugly.
But we're rewarding daring choices here. Their helmets look like the skin of the animal for which the team is named, and that's thinking outside the box. The Jaguars lacked the courage to go with a leopard print on their helmet. The Falcons don't have feathered helmets. The Jets helmets don't look like they're made of aluminum, with wings and a series of little windows.
That's because they lack vision. If you wore this Bengals helmet into the bengal tiger exhibit at the zoo, the tigers would accept you as one of their own. I encourage you to try it.
I felt very strongly that the USFL needed to have a representative here in the Shutdown Eleven. The league itself was founded on rebellious and innovative principles, so the teams themselves were almost obligated to be stylish.
The logo itself looked like a graphic you might have seen during a roller derby broadcast on ESPN in 1983. The rounded font, the star shooting into the foreground ... they didn't realize it at the time, but they were making a helmet that would be perfect on a retro t-shirt in 2008.
It doesn't hurt that they were two-time USFL champions, either. They were coached by Jim Mora Sr., and during his tenure there, he never had the opportunity to deliver a nutso "playoffs?!" rant, because in their three seasons of existence, they were in the USFL championship game three times, and won it twice.
The top five is when we start getting into some of the more boring helmets on the list, but unfortunately, that's the way it has to be. Tradition has to be rewarded. A helmet becoming iconic has to be rewarded. A helmet being a visual landmark of the NFL has to be rewarded, even above the aesthetic beauty of the helmet itself.
And that brings us to the Cowboys and their big blue star. Think about the nature of a star, and what the Cowboys have done with it. A star is a pretty basic shape, right? It's right up there with the circle, the square, and the triangle.
And the Cowboys have taken this basic shape, and through years of consistency and a winning tradition, have claimed it as their own. If you see a symmetrical blue star somewhere, chances are, you're going to think "Dallas Cowboys." The blue star is to the Cowboys what the red cross is to the Red Cross.
That's about the pinnacle for helmet recognition. Very few teams have ever taken a shape and staked their own claim to it. The rectangle is above being associated with any one sports team. The circle has too many universal applications to be claimed by any franchise.
Nobody owns the square. But the Cowboys have taken the star, or at least the blue one, and they've made it their own.
Imagine someone came to you and asked you to come up with a visual representation of a man employed by the oil industry as a team's mascot. How would you go about that?
You could paint the helmet a high-gloss jet black, making it look like it's actually covered in oil. Better yet, take the field with helmets that actually are covered in oil, and even if you don't win, at the very least, you're going to leave the other team with laundry stains that they won't be able to get out. But you'd end up regretting that in 2008, with crude oil prices being what they are. At a certain point, it's no longer cost-effective to habitually stain Peyton's jerseys.
So what do you do? Here's what you do: You slap a baby blue oil derrick on there, and you create one of the most unique and stylish helmets the world has ever seen. It was a stroke of genius for whoever came up with it. It's simple, yet easily recognizable as a team's trademark. And it was the perfect color for Warren Moon to be smoothly slinging footballs around in.
And I think the Oilers' top-five ranking here is also helped by the fact that the helmet that replaced it is so effective at making you long for the old ones. Shortly after the Oilers moved to Tennessee, they became the Titans and started wearing these jobs, which were in absolutely no danger of cracking the Shutdown Eleven.
There's no need to mention the years of the helmets in the headline, because neither of these things have changed. At least not in the last 50 years or so.
They're the kinds of helmets the fans of the respective teams will love, but non-fans might not regard particularly highly. You might look at the Packers helmet and say, "Ooooh, you've got a white 'G' in a green oval, how special. The only cool white 'G' I've ever heard of is Eminem" (note: you probably won't actually say that).
Similarly, if you don't like the Colts, you might look at their helmets and say, "Congratulations, you've got a horseshoe on your helmet. I guess this also qualifies Mr. Ed as a fashion plate."
And that's fine. You don't have to like either of these helmets. To be honest with you, I don't think either of them are great works of art, and it's highly unlikely that I'll ever be purchasing the giant helmet Fathead for either team.
But I do think you should respect the tradition behind these lids. The only thing that's changed about it from the 1960s is that the guy drawing the logo has gotten less drunk. There are some other teams that might've made this list if they'd just been able to leave their helmets alone for the last 30 years. The Broncos come immediately to mind.
So we celebrate you, Packers and Colts, for never giving into the temptation to change your helmets. I'm sure at some point in Colts history, some guy came into a board room and suggested putting a snarling cartoon horse on the Colts' helmets, and someone probably once tried to convince the Packers to put a football-toting meatpacker on the side of their helmets, but they've both resisted. And today, they're rewarded.
The Bucs discontinued this glorious creation in 1996, but it feels like it's been ten lifetimes since I've seen it. Not a day goes by that I don't wake up and miss that swashbuckling son of a gun winking at me like I just brought him breakfast in bed.
Bucco Bruce was the name of the fellow who adorned the Bucs helmets for the first twenty years of the franchise's existence. Most believe that he was a fictional character, designed to illustrate a style, virility, and daring befitting a warrior in the National Football League.
But I don't think that's true. Because a couple of years ago, I was at a party in Key West, and there was an orange man there named Bruce who had a knife in his mouth and a feather in his hat, and he made a margarita in my mouth. And then someone tackled him, and he dropped the bottle of tequila, and sobbed on my shoulder for a couple of hours. I was sure it was him, and I will never forget the tickle of that feather.
Bruce's party habits aside, though, it truly was a distinctive and attractive helmet. The orange/red color scheme is one that's rarely used, and probably for good reason, but I really think those old Bucs pulled it off. It was a unique, classy, bold look. The orange facemask and the triple stripe down the middle really tied it together.
When a team has a look that distinctive, that unique, and that immediately recognizable as their own, I firmly believe that they should hold on to it. The Bucs helmets today ... they're fine, but they're not special. When they gave up Bruce, they gave up something special.
It's a shame that the Buccaneers spent those 20 years being consistently awful, because that's pretty much cemented the fact that Bucco Bruce will never be making a comeback. Someday, when I have more money than Malcolm Glazer, I'm buying the Bucs, and I'm resurrecting Bucco Bruce. And then it's party time.
In 1962, Cleveland Republic Steel suggested to the Steelers that they adopt the Steelmark logo as their official logo. The Rooneys like the idea, and soon, the the Steelmark logo that belonged to the American Iron and Steel Institute also belonged to the Steelers.
They wanted to put it on their helmets, but the fashion-conservative Rooney family, not wanting to to do anything too flashy or daring (understandably, since we're talking about Pittsburgh here, where they've only just now started to believe that people without moustaches could be decent, trustworthy people), experimented first with just putting the logo on one side.
That way, if the people of Pittsburgh turned out to not be ready for such a fashion-forward move, they could just, I don't know ... move to other side of the stadium and look at the blank side.
Myself, I rather like the three touching hypocycloids. They make use of the three primary colors, the very bedrocks of our visual abilities, and there's meaning behind each hypocycloid, too.
Anyway, the fans didn't object, and the Steelers followed the adoption of the logo with two other tweaks: They changed their helmets from gold to black, and they got the American Iron and Steel Institute to let them put "Steelers" in the logo, as opposed to just "Steel." That happened in 1963, and since then, things have remained unchanged.
You combine that kind of history and consistency with the overwhelming amount of quirk in the Steelers helmet, and I do believe you've got an undisputed champion here. It's quirk city on the side of Big Ben's head. Observe:
• It's the only professional helmet to use a logo that was once a corporate logo before it became a football team logo
. It is the only helmet in the NFL to have a logo on one side, but not the other.
• There are two colors present in the helmet logo that exist nowhere else in the Steelers uniform: red and blue.
It's extremely unique, it's got an interesting backstory, and obviously, there's a lot of winning tradition behind it. It succeeds on every front, and is something that's kind of evolved organically out of the town itself to become a powerful and iconic sports logo.
Thankfully for the local football team, Pittsburgh was, in the 60s, a city known for the hard, durable, solid steel it produced. If Pittsburgh had been a city known for cotton, latex, or their burlesque shoes, franchise history could've been totally different.