"More Helmet Reflections"



"More Helmet Reflections"

By Dr. Ken


In the early to mid 1960s, the limited substitution rules dictated that most players know both an offensive and defensive position. In college, the typical “rotation” was: Quarterback to safety; both halfbacks to defensive backs/cornerbacks; fullback to linebacker; center to noseguard or middle linebacker; guards to defensive ends and/or linebacker; offensive tackles to defensive tackles; ends/receivers to defensive end or linebacker and in some cases, to defensive back. Obviously, there was latitude for some variation but this was very standard and when possible, the quarterback was taken off of the field when the team went to defense. This style of play meant that anyone who ardently followed a specific team became very familiar with the first fifteen or eighteen players because they were the ones on the field most of the time. It was rare to have a punter or place kicker who did not play a “regular position.”  Even into the early 1970s, substitution rules were strict, strictly enforced, and limited college coaches to two substitutions per snap other than a change of possession play.  In some parts of the country, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, players would wear different colored tags so that their coaches could keep track of who had already played in a particular quarter as the substitution rules then limited the number of specific player appearances each quarter. Needless to say, it was confusing for everyone and perhaps difficult for today’s fan to relate to.


The style of play made for a well conditioned player who was able to do a lot of sustained running. Being on the field made each man recognizable to their loyal fan base and as attendance increased, so did the need to identify each player and each team. Those who follow the various offerings on the HELMET HUT website have a good sense of history and know that placing numbers on the helmets allowed for quicker and easier player identification. Block numerals, most often on the sides of the helmet but frequently seen front and back, helped to pick out a favorite player on the field. With the proliferation of television sales across the country in the mid to late 1950s, the so-called “TV numbers” were added to the sleeve or shoulder area of the jerseys. DR. DEL RYE has noted that it was the NFL’s television contract which led to identifying, specific team logos on the professional helmets.  Thus, by the mid-sixties, due to a combination of the rules of the game and the slight but important change in uniform style, a fan could now more easily identify with his or her team of choice. When I arrived at the University Of Cincinnati, I was truly taken with the protective equipment and uniforms we were issued. What now seems like archaic, ill-fitting, and non-protective wear was state of the art in the early and mid 1960s and in my case, items I had never before seen. In high school, we had the type of hip girdle that strapped on. I often chose not to wear mine as they were very cumbersome. At college, we had what I thought was a true innovation; hip pads that one stepped into and wore as one would wear underbriefs. Of course, most of the players were from football hotbeds in Ohio, western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Indiana and had these same pads in high school. The shoulder pads were well fitted and all plastic. Our high school pads were part leather, part plastic. I was offered rib pads and the equipment manager joined some of the players in chuckling as I held them up and obviously had no idea what they were or how they were to be worn. Needless to say, “rib pads” was not a term anyone from my school and perhaps our entire area was familiar with.


When we were issued helmets, I was truly impressed. Our high school helmets, at both schools I passed through, were externally padded MacGregor helmets and both coaches (who incidentally were brothers-in-law) provided well maintained equipment, including the helmet. In both cases, the helmets were of a single color, Columbia blue at Long Beach, yellow (not gold, not maize, but a canary type of yellow!) at Lawrence. Single bar masks were the norm although some had a double bar mask and a few linemen had what we referred to as “a cage” but these were relatively few in number. At UC, the helmets were Riddell RK suspension types, gleaming white. Every player was fitted carefully by the equipment manager and his assistants. It seemed that I was hard to fit and they needed a number of attempts at rotating different cheek pads and readjustments of the chinstrap until they were satisfied that I had the correct sizing. The only remaining problem was the facemask. This particular helmet had a lineman’s cage on it, the Schutt 3 bar style (SH430 as shown in the MASK SECTION of the website) and unlike today’s masks, it was relatively heavy and caused the helmet to “pull down” towards my nose. When I assumed my stance, Freshmen Football Coach Jim Kelly stopped everyone and had us stand up. As he was staring in my direction and walking towards me, I knew I had done something dreadfully wrong but wasn’t sure what it was since we had done no more than assume a three-point stance. “Son, what kind of a stance is that?” He asked me to again assume a “correct football stance” and then drew everyone’s attention to the fact that I had my head cocked to the right. “Young man, I don’t think anyone I’ve coached has set up quite like that. Why is your head all cattywampus?” I explained that if I kept my head “straight”, I couldn’t see as the helmet, despite all of the attempts to fit it correctly, rode down onto my face enough to obscure my vision due to the size and weight of the mask. Coach Kelly immediately yelled for the equipment manager to come over and he quickly explained that because the varsity players “were up at camp until Monday”, he had no other masks for that particular helmet and it was that particular helmet that he believed I should be wearing. At that point, Coach Kelly just shrugged and said, “I hope you know the right way to do this when the time comes.” Here we were five minutes into our first day of organized practice and my new helmet had already put me behind the eight ball.