Dear Dr. Del Rye:
I noticed old photos that show facemasks attached to what look like leather helmets. I know from reading a lot of the different areas of your website that some schools did not introduce plastic helmets until years after some others but I was surprised that relatively “modern” plastic masks were also used on the leather helmets. Was this common? I also thought that the plastic mask was introduced by Paul Brown in the mid-1950’s but I have seen photos of plastic masks on leather helmets from before that date. All of the features are interesting, thank you.
George B., Superior, Wisconsin
Thank you for the question and the compliment. Actually, we can view your inquiry as more than one question. As you noted, the introduction of the plastic football helmet that took the place of leather, did not occur at once, or in any ordered manner. It evolved over the course of perhaps fifteen or more years. At some universities, with Kansas being an example [ see ASK DR. DEL RYE March 09, 2007http://www.helmethut.com/030907.html ]the program switched from leather helmets to plastic, then back to leather for one season, and ultimately, once more to plastic. Chuck Mather became the Jayhawks’ head coach in 1954 after having great success at Massillon, Ohio Washington High School. He wanted to very much duplicate what he had done there to insure his winning ways, including the use of leather helmets. After one injury-riddled season, he returned the Jayhawks to a Riddell plastic helmet. However, quite a few programs retained leather helmets into the mid-fifties, with Notre Dame being the most obvious [ see ASK DR. DEL RYE October 26, 2011 http://www.helmethut.com/DrDelrye/102611.html ].
The leather helmets worn by Notre Dame during the 1956 season demonstrate plastic one bar masks attached to the leather helmet and we would expect this with the introduction of the plastic facemask. However, in the photo below, showing the University Of North Carolina in the lighter jerseys, facing off against Rice University in the 1950 Cotton Bowl, it appears as if the Tar Heels are wearing plastic masks affixed to what are clearly leather helmets.