"The Spark"

By Dr. Ken
Being interested enough in football to pay attention to and study helmets, uniforms, and in my case, the history of specific teams is not usual. Being interested enough to focus upon these specific aspects of a professional or collegiate team's characteristics to the point of at least trying to "know everything" for no other reason than the enjoyment it brings, is probably not the norm. Studying team results and individual statistics falls within the realm of "interesting trivia" and fodder for talk around the water cooler but seeking out old magazines for the primary purposes of knowing the game scores and starting lineups from 1961 for example, marks one as a quirky personality, one that would certainly be warmly welcomed at HELMET HUT. I have been asked frequently how and why my own interest developed and perhaps some of our readers would like to share their stories. Through the columns in HELMET NEWS and the HELMET REFLECTIONS series, I have noted my general obsession with football and an overwhelming desire to play the game after seeing the first "live" game I had exposure to, a late-Fifties match between Long Beach and Uniondale, New York High Schools that had me mesmerized. The clash of the Columbia blue clad Long Beach Marines against the black and gold attired Knights had me chomping at the bit as I planned to emulate the one obviously dominant player on the field that day, Long Beach fullback Eddie Beck.
The concern or point of focus on the uniforms came around the same time. There was one book and one helmet that "got me" and definitely provided both a target and outlet for my all-consuming attention to football, training to play football more effectively, and what became a love of the game and the strategy connected to it. While hurriedly walking past the one bookstore in town, my attention was drawn to a book that was displayed in the window. Later famous as perhaps the first of the large format pictorial books about football, and considered by many to still be the very best of them, THE PROS by Robert Riger caught my attention. The black and white photo of Johnny Unitas unleashing a monstrous pass over the outstretched arm of the Giants' Dick Modzelewski captured me, captured my imagination, and instilled a love of reading and books that I had never previously known. There was commentary by Sports Illustrated's Pro Football Writer Tex Maule, a very big name at the time, but it was Riger's photos and beautiful drawings that immediately caught my attention. With the emphasis on the hometown Giants, it was a chronicle of professional football, at least from the perspective of the 1960 publication date, as seen by an astute observer. I must have walked by the store window every day for a month, taking time to stare at the book cover before I had the nerve to actually enter the store and it may have been another month of leafing through the pages of one of the store copies that attracted the attention of the shop proprietor. He asked me why I hadn't yet purchased this book that I was so obviously enamored with and I explained that I did not have the money to do so. He suggested that I give him a small sum each week, perhaps a nickel, dime, or quarter and he would keep a copy for me. I didn't know an arrangement like that could be made but my after-school and weekend odd jobs allowed me to eventually pay off the $10.00 book. The many keen-eyed photos revealed the intensity and beauty of football and everything about it including the uniforms and helmets. It was this book that sparked an interest in reading and football that persists to this day, an interest that finds me reading one to five books per week, every week, despite a fifty-five hour office schedule, other interests, and family responsibilities. It is also one of the few books I have kept through more than four decades and have multiple copies of. It is the one book I have purchased through used bookstores and dealers what could be another three dozen times that have been given as gifts.
Already obsessed with the Columbia blue helmets worn by the high school players, I would often walk to the high school to watch practice. I daydreamed about eventually becoming big enough, strong enough, and old enough to get a chance to go onto the field. Playing in the city's youth league, I would envision myself performing the same feats on the high school gridiron. The goal wasn't to play professional or college football but to represent the town on the high school field of play. Reinforcing this desire was another "chance encounter" at the local sporting goods store. We lived on the very far end of town in Point Lookout which at the time, was a gathering of summer bungalows and some houses used for year-round residents. Without heat or hot water, winters and fall seasons in the sparse summer residences were difficult and with few families there full-time, there were limited services. Shops, movies, the public library, and schools were all within the city limits of Long Beach and it required a bicycle or bus fare to get to them unless one chose to hitchhike, a very acceptable form of travel in the 1950's and early '60's, especially locally. I would go into town and walk past the sporting goods store and note the baseball gloves and various displays until the day that I spied a football helmet in the window. I thought they were displaying a Long Beach High School helmet although this was a suspension model and the Marines of the high school wore MacGregor externally padded models. I of course walked in to inquire about the helmet and was told that while the color was the same as that of the high school, this was in fact "a Kansas helmet", a Columbia or Sky-Blue shell with white side numerals and a two-bar plastic facemask. Perhaps it was my obsession with football, with our local high school team, or the fact that it so closely resembled the helmet seen in the first game I had witnessed but I thought that this was indeed, an unbelievable find, a true work of art. As I had done at the bookstore, I tried to walk past the sporting goods shop as often as possible just to gaze at the helmet and while I wasn't quite sure where Kansas was, even looking at the map that hung in my classroom, I was positive that I wanted to wear one of those helmets.
At some point, the helmet was no longer in the window, sold I was told but the impression had been made. I enjoyed drawing in my school notebook, usually football players in various poses I had seen in Riger's book and often donned in the Columbia blue helmet of Long Beach or Kansas. I sometimes used finely sharpened and carefully maintained colored pencils to "dress up" my drawings, giving the helmets various modifications, based upon photos seen in Street And Smith Annuals I had already begun to collect or the Sports Illustrated magazines kept in the school or public library. The bug had bitten, the spark had been lit for a lifetime source of enjoyment and inspiration, one that continues. The HELMET HUT "Build Your Own Helmet", available in the Webstore has allowed me to duplicate this wonderful helmet so that I have this same constant source of motivation, a reminder that one can work long and hard each day to reach what may at first appear to be an unattainable goal. At least this is one of the key purposes that the football helmet has served for me. The "Build Your Own Helmet" option allows anyone to capture a magic moment, a reminder, or a memory they want to keep for a lifetime and one glance at my Kansas helmet, one worn by the Jayhawk greats like John Hadl, Curtis McClinton, and Bert Coan, is all it takes to make me work harder and longer.