Dear Dr. Del Rye:

I look forward to all of the various helmets and columns giving information about helmets. I especially like the helmets from the 1950-1960 period when it seems they were limited to a stripe or stripes, and a player’s number on them. These had a nice, clean look. I read the information about the padded helmets that came in around the late fifties and about the Pro Cap you wrote about. I recently saw an article about the new Gladiator helmet and wanted to know if you had a comment about it. Thank you for your time.


Jackman, Maine


Dear Ray,

Thank you for your e mail, we always appreciate comments and inquiry. Please allow me to be redundant and quote from the March 2004 HELMET NEWS section ( see HELMET HUT )  which in turn, quoted information from the previous ASK DR. DEL RYE column of September 1, 2001 (see HELMET HUT ). Although the Riddell suspension helmet was the choice of most high schools, universities, and professional teams, there were those that chose a tighter fitting, head-hugging model MacGregor, Wilson, or Spalding helmet as per the last column we published here on September 30, 2008 (see ). In 1958, MacGregor introduced an externally padded helmet that for a few seasons, was worn by a number of teams. Among these were Ohio State, Duke, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Colgate, BYU, Fresno State, and Davidson. Some teams such as Iowa and Michigan State had numerous players in the externally padded helmets although they maintained the Riddell suspension model as their primary form of headgear. Certain professional players, among them Ken Gray of the Cardinals, wore the externally padded helmet for a number of seasons. Though most of the schools phased out these distinctive helmets by 1965 or 1966, Ohio State still had theirs in use through the ’67 season and Cornell into the early 1970's. Some individual players wore theirs until the end of the 1960’s and there were schools like Oklahoma that practiced in the MacGregor model yet wore a suspension or other helmet that was not externally padded for games. As per the description given by former Kansas City Chiefs equipment manager Bobby Yarbrough who prepared Willie Lanier’s distinctive padded helmet, it was constructed by covering the center ridge of the helmet with a piece of foam padding which was then covered, secured, and protected by a sheet of synthetic leather. It was glued to the helmet and painted to match the shell color or to serve as the contrasting “center stripe.” The stated purpose of the external padding was to provide protection against impact to the head and avoid concussion injury. Even as late as 1962, the A.G. Spalding And Bros. Company made a big splash at the industry’s annual sporting goods show with their introduction of a “padded football helmet” and shoulder pads with the purpose again being to present a helmet that minimized head-to-head contact forces that might produce concussion or internal injury to the skull.


Jay Wilkinson of Duke 1962 in externally padded helmet


Though the physics of cervical spine injuries was not fully understood in the mid-1960’s, five or six seasons of externally padded helmet use clearly indicated that while there was in fact a reduction in the number of head injuries and concussions, there was an increase in significant cervical spine (neck) injuries. When the Pro Cap, an external helmet covering made of urethane foam, was introduced, the problems remained the same as those faced by the factory produced externally padded helmets. Quoting one of our previous offerings;

Simply put, external padding does not make a great deal of sense from the perspective of engineering economy. Applying the same logic to the newer external helmet coverings, we would note that the additional 12-14 ounces in weight, and one inch of padding altered the ‘feel’ of the helmet and gave the wearer a definite awareness that he was wearing it. Often, the feel of the helmet served as a reminder to remain in proper hitting position. If we review the HELMET NEWS article, HELMET SAFETY, PART IV, we are aware that brain and cervical injury can occur from rotational acceleration which is a product of a number of factors that were clearly spelled out; moment arm length, mass or weight, and length of time of impact contact. The additional weight on the helmet shell increases its mass, thus increasing the potential for injury. Any increase in weight or mass also makes it more probable that the neck musculature of the player will fatigue faster, or more probably fall into an incorrect contact position, increasing the chance of injury. The foam and its covering on the MacGregor externally padded helmets (and similarly on the external helmet coverings used today) had a higher coefficient of friction and thus would increase the time of contact impact. As DR. DEL RYE put it, ‘the exterior padded helmet had the opposite effect (of a quick helmet deflection) as the…shape and leather like surface of the exterior pad caused the helmet to cling to or grab the object it was colliding with. Under these circumstances the helmet would absorb rather than deflect the full force of the collision and transfer this force to a player's susceptible neck region.’ With increased time of impact contact, there would be an expected increase in rotational acceleration and a higher probability of injury.  Thus, the two factors of additional weight and mass of the helmet and the increase in contact time, both serve to increase rotational acceleration and potential resultant injury.”


Industrial designer Bert Straus of Protective Sports Equipment is a highly respected individual in the field of equipment design and manufacturing who has attempted to reduce on-field injury through innovation. Mr. Straus invented and introduced the Pro Cap external helmet cover in the early 1990’s with Buffalo Bills hard-hitting Mark Kelso an eager convert and both Kelso and San Francisco’s Steve Wallace the best known proponents of the equipment (see HELMET HUT ).

Steve Wallace wearing Pro Cap


It was reported that the soft outer covering reduced concussion significantly and that despite the predictions and expectations of increased incidence of cervical spine injury, this did not occur. Mr. Straus “believes it is reasonable to expect that if Pro Cap were universal among football players, concussion rates would fall below 1%.” There has yet to be widespread use of the Pro Cap but Mr. Straus has been testing his Gladiator Helmet which is made from a hard polycarbonate shell that contains inflatable bladders that serve to cushion against and dissipate impact forces. Described by Mr. Straus as a “soft-hard-soft design”, this new helmet presents a hard shell that is covered with a urethane foam and then softer internal materials. Made to be lighter in weight than the current helmets, this would reduce fatigue of the cervical spine and trapezius muscles allowing for the player to maintain proper body alignment and technique during contact. The internal helmet pads have inflatable cells and a viscoelastic layer covered with a material that wicks moisture. The energy absorbing system of the padded hard shell would, in Mr. Straus’ estimation, significantly reduce concussion forces, and the resin-composite faceguard would further reduce helmet weight while its design would shift the center of gravity of the headgear closer to the player’s head, reducing torque during contact. A quick release feature on the face mask would speed removal after traumatic injury and allow for more efficient and safer player treatment by the training and medical staffs. The absence of any metal in the construction of the helmet allows it to remain on the player’s head after injury without the risk of exacerbating injury in the removal process, and the player can immediately undergo CT scan or MRI procedures. At this current time, Mr. Straus believes his helmet will be available for commercial distribution in 2009.



Dear Dr. Del Rye,

I really like all of the features on Helmet Hut and went to see the new movie The Express. Knowing that your helmets were the ones worn in the film made it a better story than it was. It made me think about the 1959 football season and the Tennessee Vols that I have always followed. I got very interested in UT that very year and we defeated the great LSU team and I have a photo of what turned out to be the winning play. In that and other shots it seems that the Vols wore squared off helmets or some players did. It seems that in The Express all of the Syracuse helmets from 1959 were the same. Can you explain this? Thank you very much.


Rosco M. Merrick

Memphis, Tennessee


Dear Rosco,


Thank you for your inquiry and all of us at HELMET HUT are pleased that we could contribute to the success and authenticity of “The Express.”  1959 was a great year for college football, not only for Syracuse, but for other highly rated teams like Ole Miss, LSU, and Georgia in the SEC, Texas and TCU in the SWC, Wisconsin and Washington who squared off in the Rose Bowl, Missouri, Oklahoma, Clemson, and Penn State. 1959 also brought significant changes to the collegiate game. The substitution rule was changed to allow for the substitution of one player whenever the clock stopped. The goal posts were made wider and with the allowed substitution of a specialized kicker, the number of successful field goals literally doubled from 1958. There was more widespread integration of previously all-Caucasian teams in the southwest, though not in the Southwest Conference, and at least three Big Ten teams had African-American starting quarterbacks. While Ohio State’s great tackle Jim Parker was the first African-American to win the Outland Trophy in 1956, as “The Express” revealed, Ernie Davis became the first to win the Heisman Trophy. West Point’s use of the Lonely End formation stimulated an increase in passing attempts and wide receiver formations. Thus you chose a wonderful year to first become involved as a fan of college football. Regarding the helmets, as a general statement, most teams would use a supplier or distributor and outfit the majority if not all of their players in a specific brand of helmet, one usually preferred or chosen by the head coach or athletic director. However individual players may have had a preference for another type of helmet, perhaps one similar to their high school model or a helmet that the training staff believed a player with a pre-existing or recent injury or anatomical problem would be best served by. Thus the Tennessee Volunteers of 1959, a 5-4-1 team that distinguished itself with upset wins over Auburn that broke the Tigers twenty-five game winning streak, and Billy Cannon’s great LSU team that had won seventeen in a row, entered the fray primarily wearing the white Riddell RK model suspension helmet with a one-inch orange center stripe (see feature about these Tennessee helmets at ).

UT Defense Stops Billy Cannon; goal line stand wins upset 14-13.


However some wore another brand that had a different appearance. Study of game film and photos from the 1959 season indicate that a number of players on the UT squad wore the MacGregor E7 Cushionlite model helmet with a white plastic Adams mask. The MacGregor combination mask and helmet, though not as widely used as the Riddell suspension helmets, was popular with many players and some collegiate and high school squads in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.


Georgia Tech bests Tennessee 14-7 in  1959 contest



One of our readers had a question regarding the DR. DEL RYE COLUMN of September 30, 2008 ( pertaining to the Wilson, MacGregor, Rawlings, and Spalding helmets of the mid-1950's to early 1960's. Specifically, as regards the illustration showing Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras, Tom asks;  

"I believe that IS a leather helmet alex Karras is wearing. The plastic MacGregor helmets based on the old leather helmet molds didn't have the seams Alex's helmet shows. Also, the game that photo comes from was played in 1959 (I remember watching it). Correct me if  I'm wrong but I believe your article on Ohio State helmets says that the plastic models didn't come out until 1960?"
Dear Tom,
All of us at HELMET HUT appreciate the input and questions from our very informed readers. In the mid-1950's MacGregor began to change their manufacturing focus from leather to plastic helmets. From that time into the early 1960's a number of players wore helmets as the September 30th column described, plastic helmets that had a very similar appearance to the leather helmets they had previously manufactured. The illustration used in the column showed Karras who wore both a MacGregor all leather helmet until and into 1959 and then one of the MacGregor models that was in fact plastic. As you watched this specific contest at which the photo in question was taken, we will assume that this was an all leather helmet sported by Karras.