"The Nascent Helmet Awareness of 1958"



The nascent Helmet Awareness of 1958


By Dr. Ken 

1958 was a pivotal year in my development as an athlete and a young man who decided to make improvement in many aspects of my existence. We moved from an isolated house that bordered the beach and lacked heat and hot water to the second floor of a two story rental home in the middle of town. Though my younger brother and I drove the downstairs neighbor to distraction with our renditions of professional wrestling bouts, the location alone made it easier to engage in school sponsored sports, and as importantly, after school football games with friends. The spirited and rather physical contests made it clear that even as a pre-teen, I was in need of becoming larger and stronger if I intended to compete well at my relatively new found love of high school football. Though my high school experience would not begin for a few years, I had already set my sights on the goal of wearing the Columbia blue and white of Long Beach High School. I had an early love for college football, had been exposed to professional football via the radio and television, and became mesmerized by the high school games I had been watching live at both Long Beach and Lawrence High Schools for two seasons.

Lawrence High School great Sal Ciampi later served as captain of the Purdue University Boilermakers. He attended training camp with the N.Y. Giants and matched his legendary record as a player by becoming one of the greatest high school coaches in New York State history. 

Living in town instead of on the outskirts where a bus ride or some luck hitch-hiking was necessary to attend school, see a movie, or visit the public library and any of the stores, also offered the opportunity to better enjoy the football season. Highly competitive games of tackle football were played on the grassy medians that divided the flow of two-way traffic through Long Beach. What seemed like “kid stuff” to the adults who would occasionally stop and watch the athletic events, at times were mini-bloodbaths as teams from different parts of town squared off and often tried to prove who was tougher. Rather than overcoming travel logistics or time constraints to join in the contests, I could now walk down the street and be in the middle of the action, often visualizing myself duplicating the achievements of one of my collegiate heroes like Billy Cannon.

Billy Cannon of LSU was a favorite of our young group of football fanatics. We were astute enough at a very young age to already know who the truly great players were. 

The speed demon in our group, Richard Landsman whom was mentioned in this column last month, later proved to be the mainstay of the high school track team but more importantly, he very much mirrored my obsessive penchant for football research. He was aware of LSU’s progress through an arduous season that produced Billy Cannon’s famous Halloween night punt return that toppled Ole Miss and their undefeated National Championship season, the lackluster performance of Columbia University against most of their foes, and the Heisman Trophy play of Army’s Pete Dawkins [ see HELMET HUT Army 1957 -1958 summary at http://www.helmethut.com/College/Army/NYUSMA5758.html ]. Richard and I shared a similar perspective of Dawkins and we saw him very much as the football version of Superman. In the New York metropolitan area press, he was written up often and he was one of the nation’s few players that was actually as good, or better, than his press clippings.

One of my fondest memories, and one that no doubt spoke volumes in predicting my work with HELMET HUT and attachment to “all things football,” is as vivid as if it had occurred merely days ago. I was a proud member of the local Pop Warner Lido/Point Lookout Knights, a blue-and-white clad group of ten to twelve year olds who played against a number of similar teams that represented the various sections of the City of Long Beach.

With a Heisman Trophy and accolades for his offensive heroics, it is largely forgotten that Pete Dawkins was a fine two-way performer. His defensive abilities are caught in this photo from the 1958 game against Navy. Note the Naval Academy’s distinctive dark navy blue helmets worn exclusively that season for the annual clash with the Black Knights [ see HELMET HUT Navy 1958 summary at  http://www.helmethut.com/College/Navy/MDUSNA5858.html 

As a full blown Dawkins and Army fan, I did not believe I could perform to my utmost ability in the plain white Riddell and Wilson helmets we wore. I walked to the local hardware store and with my own money, earned by working side-by-side with my chef uncle and doing what was very much an adult man’s labor, purchased a can of gold spray paint and black electrical tape. I can still see myself sitting on the curb, carefully, patiently, and lovingly spray painting my white helmet until it mimicked the gold headgear of West Point. The one-inch black center stripe was rather easy to recreate with the electrical tape but I was clueless and lost for the identifying player numerals that the Army team wore on each side of their helmets. Numerous attempts to “cut” my own tape numbers failed miserably but I had the basic shell and stripe.

It was obvious even to other ten year olds that my newly painted gold helmet did not match the blue jersey with white numerals or the white pants we wore. I of course was oblivious because now, I was my own recreation of Pete Dawkins, Army halfback! That our adult coaches were flabbergasted and a bit unhappy was somehow totally missed on my part and before the unveiling of my newly painted helmet was more than an hour old, I was asked to make the same alterations to at least a half dozen of my teammates helmets.

Helmet Hut’s authentic reproduction of the great Bob Anderson’s Army helmet is as close to the real game worn model this legendary back wore at West Point. Mine passed muster for an eleven year old! See http://www.helmethut.com/College/Army/Anderson.html   

Our coaches were more impressed with the enthusiasm of our group and no doubt chose to ignore the fact that we were perhaps the worst dressed team in the history of the league or City. The gold helmets clashed with the rest of the uniform but our entire squad pictured ourselves as the great Black Knights of The Hudson. No one would have mistaken  Mark Tugendhaft, Billy Miller, or me for Army’s Lonesome End Bill Carpenter or backfield stars Dawkins or Bob Anderson but we thought we looked the part. At an age of easy impression the helmet already made a difference!