"My First Memory"
HELMET NEWS ARTICLE FOR FEBRUARY 2005
"My First Memory" Part II
By Dr. Ken
Receiving my first junior high school football helmet was a great experience. I hate to sound the way my grandfather and father did, complaining about the “younger generation”, but in most parts of the country including ours in the metropolitan New York City area, football does not have the same meaning as it did in the 1950s and 1960s. High school football was a community event and representing one’s high school against that from another town truly meant something. It was important to be able to wear your school jersey and most of the adults and almost all of the high school students were aware of the team’s progress in any season. Now, with many other distractions, schools across the country have difficulty fielding a full team or both junior varsity and varsity teams every season. NFL statistics indicate that participation in high school football is down over twenty percent relative to twenty-five years ago and in some regions of the country, much more than that. In the New York City Public School System, a limited number of teams play football and many don’t have a field to practice on, walking or busing to a public park to do so. In the late 1950s and early 1960s however, even in the environs of New York City, high school football was a rallying point for each community.
I had a succession of cousins who played football at Brooklyn’s Madison High School but did not see them play. My first experience at Long Beach High School was literally life changing and when it was my turn to get the hand-me-down helmets that the junior high school team received, I was ecstatic. An externally padded, Columbia blue helmet packed with white foam padding seemed like the crowning touch to a king’s uniform! When I transferred to Lawrence High School a few towns over, it required me to arise an hour earlier than I had been used to, and then standing it what was often bone-chilling temperatures and wind that whipped off of the ocean in order to hitchhike a ride over the Atlantic Beach Bridge to my new school. The football coach, Jack Martilotta, was the brother-in-law of the Long Beach coach which is why I was steered in that direction. He was known as “a winner”, having lost only five games in five years prior to my arrival and he insisted that his players dress in a first class manner. We also wore the MacGregor helmets with external padding, in yellow, with pants that were made to match those worn by the Los Angeles Rams. Helmet lovers will recall that the Rams wore the yellow and blue helmet design with pants that matched. In the late 1950s, they also wore a yellow/gold football jersey with blue numbers and our pants were of the highest quality and knowing that they were designed to mimic the Rams’ outfit made us feel special.
During this time, the college helmets seen on television were more interesting than many of the pro helmets, but to the professional league’s credit, the understated designs were head and shoulders above the over stylized designs seen today. LSU had a great uniform and as HELMET HUT stated in their Billy Cannon presentation (check LSU helmets in the COLLEGE section of the site), one might not think that their color combination would look good but it actually looks great! Cannon was on the cover of many pre-season football magazines in 1959, being the leader of LSU’s 1958 National Championship team and a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy which he of course won. Somewhat similar to the Green Bay Packer helmets, there was no comparison as the purple of the Tigers brought out the highlights of the entire helmet. Syracuse was usually featured on television and in the college football magazines that were distributed in our area. Ernie Davis was their big gun and the distinctive orange helmet with “off centered” numerals made for a distinctive look. I always wanted to get an answer to the question, “Why were the numbers off-set to the rear of the helmet instead of being placed on the sides like everyone else’s?” Different and unusual and of course, they had a great team that won the National Championship in 1959. The helmet topped off a uniform that on paper, may not have sounded very attractive but with their white jerseys, black sleeve stripes, orange helmets with the single blue stripe and those off-set numbers, they had a great looking uniform. The other Eastern team that caught my eye was Holy Cross. It is difficult for those who have grown up with NCAA Division 1-A, 1-AA, II, III and NAIA classifications to realize that smaller schools like Holy Cross played big time football. They wore a purple helmet with closely placed white stripes that matched the shoulder stripes on their jersey, and the two closely spaced white stripes on their purple uniform pants. It was a terrific look. Ole Miss was always one of the country’s top teams during that era, and their simply stated blue helmet with red stripe (see the Eagle Day helmet in the MISSISSIPPI section of the COLLEGE HELMETS) was considered both representative of the late 1950s and one of the prettiest.