In 1869, Princeton played Rutgers in the first intercollegiate football game. It would have been unrecognizable to modern fans, from the rules to the score—Rutgers won a shootout, 6-4—to the size and bareheaded-ness of the players. So much has changed, as this peek at the evolution of brain buckets alone makes clear. —Illustrations by Bryan Mayes
Up to the 1900s: No Helmets. Also no shoulder pads or other protective gear beyond a “uniform” made of wool or another durable fabric. (But hey, who needs armor when you have a mustache!)
1920s: Soft Leather. With the NFL founded in 1920 and athletes like Jim Thorpe on the field, a small step is made for player safety with soft leather helmets. (Not that all players wear them.)
1939: Plastic. While leather gets harder, John T. Riddell (whose company still dominates the helmet industry) reshapes the game by introducing plastic helmets.
1940: Strapped In. Chinstraps make their first NFL appearance. (And no, we’re not referring to those sported by the Motherlovers.)
1943: Helmets Required. Players wearing plastic helmets realize they can use them to injure opponents still going bareheaded: This NFL rule aims to stop it.
1948: No Plastic. Also, the plastic helmets often crack, so they injure both opponents and the people they’re “protecting.” The NFL bans them.
1948: Getting the Look. Los Angeles Ram Fred Gehrke paints horns on his helmet, creating the NFL’s first helmet emblem.
1949: Plastic (Take 2). Less shatter-y plastic helmets return, paving the way for modern helmets. (In 1986, the polycarbonate helmet will emerge and gradually take their place.)
1955: Metal Gear. The single face bar is introduced: the double bar and full face mask will appear in subsequent seasons.
1971: Extra Padding. Air bladders are added inside of helmets to soften the impact on the head, as it’s recognized there might be a better way than slamming your skull against hard plastic.
2002: You Say You Want a Revolution… As the NFL’s official helmet, Riddell set out to deal with concussions with their Riddell Revolution, and players wear virtually the same helmet today. Not without controversy, though, over how effective the helmets actually are and how Riddell marketed them. But let’s face it: No matter the decade or the safety breakthrough, football’s dangerous.
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