The Evolution of Football Equipment
When watching football, it’s easy to take for granted that the equipment utilized by the participants is the same as it has always been, standing ready to protect the players from the tough physical demands of the game.
But as much as we know the game of football, it has changed from its origins as a rugby-like affair in the late 1860s to the modern game we know in 2013. The equipment designed to shield the competitors has also been completely transformed within the 144-year history of the game.
The following slideshow tracks this historic transformation by chronicling the evolution of six of the major components of football equipment from their individual debuts right up until how they look and perform in today’s version of the game.
As a tasty bonus, not only do we look at how the equipment has changed but we identify why each evolution took place; whether it was spurred on by injury, technological advancement or mere aesthetic desires.
When “football” first began being played in the United States it was indeed called football, but it looked far more similar to the game of rugby that had been imported to collegiate fields from across the Atlantic from England.
This means that there were no players wearing headgear when Princeton and Rutgers squared off for the first college football game in history in 1869.
It’s the 1890s before any consistent mention of head protection devices are found with at least a couple of sources claiming that the first in-game use of a “helmet” came during the 1893 edition of the Army Navy game in Annapolis.
The obvious reason for the helmet’s coming of age in football and its eventual technological transformation was and is injury prevention.
This scenario was spurred along as the game of American football changed from the rugby-like game of the 19th century to the game we know today; a slow but steady change brought on by a series of rule modifications introduced by the likes of Walter Camp.
Camp’s revolutionary ideas included introducing the snap, instituting the three-down and five system (which led to the four-down and 10 system), modifying the field size, allowing tackling below the waist, mandating the number of players on the line of scrimmage, etc.; all changes that ultimately separated “football” from “rugby” and also created a need for protective equipment.
Though some folks will still say that Rugby is still just as tough a game as American football—minus the over-the-top use of shielding equipment—consider the fact that 23 participants actually died playing college football in 1905 prior to rules being tweaked and defensive gear being introduced.
That said, helmets were not a mandatory piece of equipment in college ball until 1939, so before that time looking across a field on game day you were likely to see a sampling of bare heads and a wide variety of “helmets.”
The first helmets used in football were made out of leather straps or mole skin fused together to protect players who had a concern for their own safety.
These crude, handmade helmets, which didn’t even cover the entire head, gave way to the more familiar “ear flap” or aviator models we think of when we conjure up visions of the earlier editions of gridiron head protection.
The idea of padding for comfort coupled with impact absorption toyed with in the early leather models was improved upon by Illinois coach Robert Zuppke, who led the Illini to a 131-81-12 mark from 1913-1941 including eight Big Ten titles and four national championships.
Other than the actual leather product stiffening and becoming more impact resistant over time, the next major advancement in helmet technology came in the 1940s when a Chicago sporting goods company by the name of Riddell patented the plastic football helmet.
Though the plastic helmet had its obvious early drawbacks (to keep things in perspective the mass production of plastics didn’t start in earnest until the 1930s and 40s), its emergence spelled the end of the era of the leather helmet.
Once the technology for plastics and synthetic materials ramped up adequately the helmet began to take the shape of the modern head gear we are more familiar with today.
This progression included the introduction of the wide array of color and logos that modern helmets offer, but this certainly doesn’t mean that players didn’t paint their headgear even in the earliest days of football.
In fact, the iconic styling of the University of Michigan's helmet actually follow the original lines on the Wolverine’s once-leather helmets, thereby connecting present day equipment with the far-off past.
Other than displaying school spirit, players also painted their headgear for more functional means in the early days, as once the forward pass was introduced in 1906 QBs could spot their receivers downfield more easily with a distinctly different colored helmet.
In the early 1970s Riddell set the standard once again by introducing it’s HA series of helmets that featured vinyl pads inside the helmet that could be filled with air to further absorb impact and facilitate a more custom fit.
Riddell’s Revolution Speed helmet is now the standard in the game and though plastic is still stuff headgear is made of, science continues to formulate new variations that perform better at lighter weights both inside and outside of the helmet.
The historical origins of the facemask as it pertains to a football helmet are a lot more difficult to determine than the other components on our list.
The problem here is that as long as guys have been putting helmets on and playing football, they’ve been getting socked in the mouth or the face.
And as long as they’ve suffered some sort of injury to the face, they’ve fashioned some sort of mask and tried to rig it up to their helmet and Voilà...they’ve invented the facemask.
Prior to the actual facemask football players back in the 1920s wore some fairly scary looking nose guards either with or without a helmet to protect their faces.
These medieval-looking apparatuses obviously made playing football uncomfortable and as they went out of fashion, rapidly, guys either went without face protection or they fashioned their own “masks” crudely attaching them to their leather helmets.
Though many folks are credited with some sort of rubber-covered wire mask earlier, the first purpose-manufactured mask came in 1953 when Riddell made an apparatus for Cleveland Brown QB Otto Graham.
Graham’s mask was a Lucite shield but it’s important to note, again, that it wasn’t truly the “first” facemask in football.
The Lucite shield was a disaster due to its propensity to shatter upon impact leading to it ultimately being banned by the powers that be at the NFL.
This led to Riddell’s BT-5 helmet which featured the iconic single bar facemask, officially opening the floodgates for the double-bar style and then any number of configurations of bars over the next 50 years.
Facemask technology, like that of helmets, is constantly being improved by advancements in synthetic materials.
As a sidebar, college football and the NFL didn’t introduce the facemask penalty until the late 1950s when the use of facemasks had adequately caught on in the game.
The Shoulder Pads
The concept of protecting the upper-body in the game of American football actually predates the idea of protecting the head, an approach that either highlights the difference between the rugby style of play in the late 1800s and today’s game or is simply a sign of the times.
Either way, the “invention” of shoulder pads in football is credited to one L.P. Smock, a Princeton student who is said to have designed the pads in 1877, eight years after his school faced Rutgers in the first ever college football game.
The first pads are said to have been made of leather and wool and were sewn into the competitor’s jerseys as opposed to being worn as a separate piece of equipment.
The first set of “harnessed” shoulder pads, those pulled on over the head an attached at the chest, were introduced sometime after the turn of the century and were still made of leather but also utilized canvas.
Shoulder pads began to be manufactured from plastic materials in the 1960s and 1970s and as was the case in helmets, materials technology continued to mean that less substance could be used for more effective protection.
As the raw materials used to make shoulder pads changed, so too did the areas that the equipment covered.
Indeed, what was originally designed as padding for just the shoulders crept down to protect the upper torso including the ribs and upper chest, meaning that this piece of specific equipment evolved along with concerns over injuries in other parts of the body.
Though the transformation between the helmets of yesteryear and those of the modern era are no doubt striking, the change in shoulder pads over the last couple of decades represents what may be the biggest recent equipment evolution.
At least visually.
Bulky shoulder pads that made a player look cumbersome and hulking as recently as the 1990s have made way for more efficient padding that gives competitor’s a sleeker more athletic look in today’s game.
But the improvements are more than skin deep, as the advancements also mean better ventilation, enhanced mobility, increased comfort and better protection.
Really, as far as the overall form goes, the pants have experienced the least change of any part of the equipment used to play the game of football.
Though the rugby-like game played back in 1869 featured players dressed like they were in a Civil War era street fight, the padded football pants became a part of the game as early as the 1880s.
The original material for the pants was canvas and the pads, though light, was sewn into the knee and thigh regions providing at least some measure of protection.
Hip padding came next, sometime before the turn of the century and though the material the pants and the pads were made of changed drastically over the years, the basic design has stayed the same for well over a century.
As is the case in the helmet, facemask and shoulder pads as new materials have become available the pads and the pants themselves have evolved from their inefficient canvas and wool predecessors to the nylon, foam rubber and other synthetic materials of today.
And, again, the results have included increased levels of player safety, mobility, ventilation and comfort.
Frankly, it’s hard to believe that the early athletes who competed in college football could run at all in the boot-like devices that they wore when the game was in its earliest stages.
The earliest football shoes weren’t much different than what a man would wear to work and even a shoe that might be termed “athletic” would seem more like a “girl dress shoe” to a pair of critical eyes from 100 years later.
What spurred on shoe technology was not safety, but the rise of the competitive nature of the game which went hand in hand with football becoming a popular spectator sport as the 20th century dawned.
Basically, players wanted to be prepared to play well in changing field conditions and so the concept of a better shoe with a cleat was born.
This idea was helped along by the popularity of the “other” football across the Atlantic—the one we in the US call soccer—which was wildly successful and led to a quicker reaction commercially speaking.
Cleat technology began with players attaching their own metal version of cleats to the bottom of their shoes which eventually led to manufacturers producing ready-made versions.
Again, it was other sports such as baseball and English soccer that preceded American football in terms of manufacturing advancements in removable cleats, improved materials, etc. Eventually, as American football swept the nation, the gridiron shoe caught up.
The football shoe went from its original boot configuration to a lower cut design, and as in the case of all of the other equipment components we’ve discussed, technology in terms of materials has changed how shoes are made and what they are made of.
Available to today’s players are lighter-weight shoes and a wide-array of cleats for different climate conditions and individual styles.
Though not worn by an individual player or necessarily for his safety, the ball is perhaps the most essential element of the game of football.
Though our game of American football has its most traceable roots in English rugby, the ball we use and share with our neighbors across the Atlantic has ties to ancient Rome.
Indeed, the Roman ball games known as “harpastum” or “follis” shared similar rules to our modern adaptations of football, soccer and rugby and it purportedly used a ball with a pig bladder.
Not surprisingly, the game of rugby, which we’ve already established as the precursor to American football, uses a ball with a similar watermelon shape—only it’s larger, fatter and has less defined points.
The first ball used in American football in that very first game between Rutgers and Princeton was more of a round ball that wouldn’t hold its shape it all; think of something between a horrible basketball and an actual rugby ball.
As far as the first leather football, it came in 1887 when a Boston Red Sox pitcher named Spalding produced the first leather ball complete with lacing.
Though the ball was still blunter on the ends, more like a rugby ball, Spalding’s ball marked the beginning of the shape of the football as we now know it.
Over time the football’s pointed ends became more pronounced and the body more streamlined by simple evolution and necessity rather than a dictated ruling.
This is one of the less discussed reasons why the forward pass was successfully launched in 1906 and became such a substantial part of the game we know today.
Another less known fact about the early ball is the fact that up until 1956 a white football was used for night games, making it easier for players to see the ball in the low lighting.
The brown ball with a white stripe replaced the all-white ball in ’56 and though the NFL eventually dropped the stripes from its ball, the collegians still use the striped pigskin as their game ball.
For those hungry for more tasty factoids, 1956 was also the year the NFL first added the facemask penalty to the rulebook linking the two pieces of equipment forevermore.
After a very auspicious beginning and years of inconsistencies, today’s footballs, at all levels, must meet precise size and weight standards to be considered official.