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


Dear George,

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, 2007 ]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 ].




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.



I believe this is the type of helmet/mask arrangement you have referred to. As the 1950 Cotton Bowl pre-dates the introduction of the plastic BD, Lucite, and other plastic masks, these would demonstrate an example of the Schutt metal masks that were dipped. Some schools then painted the masks, as North Carolina did above, to provide a “better” appearance to their uniform but these would not be plastic. Contrast these versus those utilized by Notre Dame on their leather helmets into the late-1950’s.



Notre Dame utilized leather helmets with single bar masks for most of their players during the 1957 season.


All American end Monty Stickles demonstrates a two bar plastic mask on his leather helmet in 1958. By 1959, the Fighting Irish had made the switch to the Riddell plastic helmets


Most typically, we would expect a mask that was attached to a leather helmet to have an appearance that reflected a metal, or eventually, a dipped metal mask.


Thus, any mask that might appear as “plastic” that is affixed to a leather helmet that predates the introduction of the Riddell plastic mask in the mid to late -1950’s, would be metal or dipped metal that had been painted. Thank you very much for your inquiry.

Dr. Del Rye

Dear Dr. Del,

There have been a lot of pictures published of YA Tittle wearing the helmet that had the unusual mask type of protection when he broke his cheekbone. I have always considered this my favorite, especially as a Niners fan and a big fan of YA. There have been theories as to what this original piece of protection device actually was but other than old guys like me, have there been any interested parties coming up with the answer to this? Thanks for any information.

Paul, Riverside, California


Dear Paul,

Questions like this make “old guys” at HELMET HUT very happy as we enjoy delving into the past eras of suspension helmets and old style face masks that most young enthusiasts see as merely “old school stuff.” Allow me to first note that you are correct; the Y.A. Tittle helmet modification has received quite a bit of exposure through the years, even garnering a cover photo for the Sports Illustrated issue of November 22, 1954.


However, the type of protective modification was not “original” to Y.A.’s helmet, and his injury did not occur in 1954.  In the third game of the 1953 season against the Detroit Lions, Y.A. was injured and in his own words…”the fractured cheek occurred when I was running a bootleg play against the Detroit Lions. I started from the five and made it to the end zone before the Lions spotted me. Jack Christiansen grabbed my arm as I crossed the goal-line and buggy-whipped me in a circle. At the end of the whip, my face met Jim David’s knee. I could hear the bones crunching in my cheek. It was the worst pain I have ever experienced.” Y.A., living up to his reputation as one of the NFL’s most underrated competitors with a fierce spirit that was hidden beneath the façade of a balding, mild-mannered appearing gentleman, noted that “I had scored, which really didn’t matter since we lost the game, 24-21.” The subsequent surgery was performed at a Detroit hospital and removed sixteen bone chips from Y.A.’s cheek. When he returned to action only a few weeks later, coincidentally against the Lions, he requested and certainly needed some additional facial protection and his helmet was fitted with the addition of the bracket-like guard.

In 1954, when the modified helmet and mask combination perhaps received more exposure, the fractured cheek had been long healed though the oft-injured Tittle had to contend with a broken left hand that hampered him throughout ten of the season’s games. The facial “protector” worn by Y.A. has been postulated to be a piece of kitchen cabinet ware but actually manufactured by Schutt, the leading steel facemask manufacture of the time.

When his helmet was painted gold, the holes drilled for the additional bracket-like protective piece remained visible. Note the two single bars fashioned to provide additional facial protection

While Tittle’s face protector received a great deal of attention and the helmet has become a sought after piece of memorabilia by helmet collectors, it was not the first time this specific bracket-like piece was used. Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, the Hall Of Fame receiver of the Los Angeles Rams was exceptionally injury prone. As an All American running back at Wisconsin and Michigan, and while playing for the AAFC Chicago entry, he suffered numerous injuries and also was fortunate to survive a horrifying auto accident that left him with a fractured skull. When he joined the Rams, head coach Clark Shaughnessey provided Hirsch with special running drills to strengthen a previously injured leg and a bracket was attached to the helmet to provide a bit of additional protection to his face and it was presumed, head. Close inspection of the helmet used by Crazy Legs in 1951 reveals that this is a very similar piece of equipment later used by Tittle in 1953 and ’54.

A closer look reveals that the intent of the attachment, like Tittle’s, was to discourage direct hand strikes to the cheek area and side of the head.  The materials used to make helmets were of a much softer plastic than what is used today.  The brackets main purpose was to keep the helmet sides from flexing toward the face.  These brackets gave the sides of the helmet a more rigid foundation.

I believe that numerous individuals have stepped forward to take credit for many, if not all advances in football equipment safety and innovation. It is unclear whom exactly first devised a metal helmet bracket designed as a specific safety feature but it served its purpose and many past features in the
Ask Dr. Del Rye section have featured similar helmet attachments designed to serve the same purpose. Your insightful question is most appreciated.


Dr. Del Rye