By Dr. Ken 


The suspension helmet era in football is generally considered to span from the years of approximately 1945 through the beginning of the 1980’s. Technically, that may not be correct, with the Riddell suspension helmet developed in 1939 and the various individual “cell type” internal protection helmets having widespread use by the mid-‘70’s. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1940’s that full teams would be equipped with the Riddell RT suspension helmets on a regular basis and there were many players with lengthy careers who wore their trusty RK or TK suspension models deep into the Seventies and some into the early 1980’s. During that time period, the specific offensive and defensive philosophies and formations changed, and alterations in the equipment worn and rules of the game followed to accommodate those changes. However, the fundamental purpose of football remained and the emphasis was on “the physical,” the dynamic that allowed players and fans of one distinct era to relate to those from other eras. Now, it is different, everything is different. Every football fan who reads the material or browses the many helmets on our HELMET HUT site is interested enough in football to know that on every level of play, the game is not the game that was played in the 1950’s through the late-1970’s or early ‘80’s.

Throughout the 1950 – 1980 span of time, the emphasis in the sport of football was always placed upon blocking and tackling fundamentals. University of Cincinnati tough guy Jim Swanda learned the effective way to tackle “through” the opponent

When the forward pass was introduced to the game, purists were concerned about the demise of football as they knew it. Needless to state, the game became an improved version of its past: more excitement, more scoring, more entertaining and little dilution of the game’s fundamentals. The game was built upon the fundamentals of physically dominating others with blocking and tackling techniques. The proper application of the appropriate technique could allow a smaller and perhaps less imposing individual to defeat another in a one-on-one confrontation and because that possibility existed, the game was always worth watching. As a young high school coach, I annoyed some of the older coaches in our area with an oft-repeated statement I made to my players at the beginning of each season. In summary I said, “Fellows, we think of football as a team game and you certainly must operate as a team in order to successfully execute each play, but what we have is eleven individual match-ups. This makes football an ‘individual game’ too. If I can teach you how to win six or seven of those individual contests on each play, we will win as a team.” In truth, that was the game of football as I knew it and as it was taught by my high school and college coaches, almost to a man, veterans of military combat in World War II, the Korean War, or both. These men had lived through and understood survival situations and brought that sense of conflict, urgency, physical and mental toughness, and willingness to both physically and technically prepare for conflict. The conflict of football, then, was very much a one-on-one, man-to-man battle based on contact, that spanned sixty minutes. If this sounds too testosterone-drenched for the younger reader, this almost perfectly reflects the lack of understanding of the game “then,” versus what football is today.




Typical of the way in which football was played from the late 1950’s through the 1960’s when I was of age to play it, were the men who coached the game during that period of time. Very much typical of these men was Richard MacPherson who was in every sense of the word, a “man’s man.”  A product of Old Town, Maine, he played four years of football and basketball and two seasons of baseball in high school. His leadership ability stood out, combined with a toughness that reflected being one of twelve children who always had a variety of jobs to supplement the income of his father who worked as a plumber.  He had excellent football ability but it was his leadership skills that earned the respect of his teammates. After attending Maine Maritime Academy, he left to enlist in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Four years of military service and the GI Bill brought him to Springfield College with enhanced “command presence,” especially as a more mature student relative to his teammates, and he led as Co-Captain from his center and middle linebacker positions. His teams were exceptionally successful, with Dick calling defensive signals, a true coach on the field. One of Springfield’s assistant coaches noted Dick’s great leadership ability and stated that “he got such high respect from the team. He gave them a lot of confidence in those years.”


Mac became an assistant at Springfield upon his graduation and then served as a graduate assistant at the University of Illinois where Chuck Studley was an assistant coach. MacPherson moved to an assistant’s position at the University of Massachusetts, and helped to bring Studley in as the head coach there when a coaching change occurred. After a year at UMass Studley took the Cincinnati head job, calling for Mac to join him there as his defensive coach.



Head Coach Chuck Studley on the far right, Defensive Coach Dick MacPherson in the middle, with the rest of the 1965 UC staff



Studley too was a military veteran, a U.S. Navy submarine torpedo operator and at UC, their backgrounds of discipline, organization, and teamwork was reflected in the way in which the fundamentals were taught and practiced. This was typical of the times, and of course, both men rose through the coaching ranks, with Studley eventually a defensive coordinator for Super Bowl teams with the Bengals and Dolphins and the head coach of the Houston Oilers, and Coach Mac becoming a College Football Hall of Fame member after his years as the head man at Syracuse. Although Cincinnati has been considered to be the first major college to institute the use of a gap defense under Coach Mac and Studley, it was less the innovative approach to formation and more the consistent emphasis on blocking and tackling that marked the success of their squads.

Another maxim about the way in which football used to be played, was “It isn’t a game for everyone.” I held great respect for my teammates, opponents, and every young man that I had the privilege to coach over a combined eleven-year high school coaching career, at two schools. In “my day” football was not a game for everyone because if it was practiced and played correctly, one would have to accept the fact that they would be hit and have to hit someone else every day. This is what separated those that played from those that did not. There were terrific athletes in every school that excelled in other sports but did not, or could not play football. It just “wasn’t for them” and sometimes it wasn’t for them in large part because they did not want to be hit or in turn, hit someone, every day of practice and in every game. Allow me to interject that the author and the entire staff of
HELMET HUT agrees that the physical safety and well-being of every player is, and must be the foremost consideration in presenting every aspect of the game. That however, puts the following question squarely in the forefront of what must be addressed regarding both the way in which the game is played relative to the “old days,” and what is best regarding player safety: “Is the new game of football the way it is played and practiced more conducive to long term injury and the production of potential brain damage compared to the way it used to be?”



Is the emphasis on playing “basketball on grass” with a desire to avoid basic blocking and tackling and instead try for the ESPN highlight-reel kill shot causing more injuries than it prevents? These most provocative questions have a number of concepts to be considered but there is a crying need for an unbiased study to determine for example, if the new National Football League Collective Bargaining Agreement ‘s dictums regarding allowable practice time, contact sessions, tackling and blocking rules, and voluntary versus mandatory training and preparation sessions are reducing or increasing player injury and potential long range damage


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