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 The Origin of the Football Helmet

John Tate Riddell was born in Georgetown, Michigan in October, 1885. After graduating "Cum Laude" from Bethany College in 1909 he did graduate work at Yale, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago.

From 1913 through 1927 he taught Mathematics and was Head Football Coach and Athletic Director at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. It was at this time Mr. Riddell invented and developed the removable cleat.

He did it to solve a problem for his Evanston High School team. In those years football shoes were equipped with leather cleats. At the time, football cleats were made of leather and nailed to the sole of the shoe. Changing cleats due to inclement weather required the services of a cobbler to have longer "mud cleats" installed. Because Northwestern University used the same cobbler as Evanston Township High School, Evanston's football shoes were often not finished by game time.

Riddell knew his idea would solve this problem for everyone, once and for all. Lacking the capital necessary to start his own business, Riddell had his shoes manufactured by the J.P. Smith Shoe Company, and he and his wife installed the posts and cleats in the evenings. He continued to teach, coach and produce his shoes until 1927, when, with the popularity of shoes growing, he left education to devote his entire effort to producing shoes. John T. Riddell, Inc. was formed in February, 1929.

Mr. Riddell's talent for inventing and improving sports equipment did not end with the removable cleat. Shortly after incorporating, baseball and track shoes were added to the line. Next came Riddell's development of the first molded, seamless basketball, which was marketed until the start of World War II, when pure rubber latex became unavailable. Because he was never satisfied with post-war subsitute materials, he never pursued the idea further.

Prior to World War II, with the birth of the new plastics industry, Riddell was on the verge of revolutionizing the protective helmet field by inventing and patenting the webbed suspension. As early as 1939 Mr. Riddell had perfected the first plastic suspension helmet. He intended to replace the soft leather helmet then used with a helmet consisting of a hard plastic shell containing his webbed suspension, which would absorb and attenuate impacts to the head sustained during a football game. However, before he was able to produce his suspension helmet, the war began and plastic became unavailable.

At the request of the U.S. Government, Riddell granted them a license to use his suspension in the production of military helmets and liners. For a more thorough examination of this facet of Riddell's history, see Saved by Riddell, by noted army helmet historian and author Chris Armold.

Mr. Riddell never lived to see his helmet become the most popular helmet ever made. He died on July 3, 1945. Despite his death, his company was successful in marketing his suspension helmet, beginning in 1946 with the RT-2 model. Through the early years, although the company had been engaged in the production and sale of various sporting goods products, the thrust of its product development and attention had been in the areas of athletic shoes and protective helmets. The popularity of the Riddell helmets has steadily increased since its introduction in 1946.

While athletic shoes played an important part in Riddell's corporate life, it became impossible to compete with foreign-made athletic shoes causing the discontinuance of the shoe line in 1979. However, by the mid- '80s Riddell was embarking on a strategy to broaden its protective football business by introducing a line of high school shoulder pads. This was soon augmented by a line of youth shoulder pads. In 1988 Riddell acquired the Power Athletic Company, a manufacturer of ultra-high quality professional shoulder pads. This acquisition spurred a complete revamp and expansion of the Riddell branded pad line which has resulted in volume that rivals any competing shoulder pad company.

Buoyed by the success of its helmet and shoulder pad lines, Riddell successfully negotiated an agreement with the National Football League in 1989 that allowed the Riddell brand prominent display in televised NFL games in exchange for Riddell helmets and Power shoulder pads for NFL players.

Riddell Firsts:

  • 1922 First Removable Cleats
  • 1929 First Action Last
  • 1939 First Plastic Helmet
  • 1939 First Web Suspension
  • 1940 First Chin Strap worn on chin
  • 1940 First Low-Cut football shoes
  • 1940 First Plastic Facemask
  • 1951 First Clear Bar Guard
  • 1957 First Tubular Bar Guard
  • 1962 First Nose Protector – U Guard
  • 1963 First Aero Cells in a Helmet
  • 1969 First Microfit Helmet
  • 1973 First Air Cushion Helmet
  • 1974 First Professionally Tested Youth Helmet Interior System
  • 1977 First Ripple Sole Soccer Shoe
  • 1977 First Stainless Steel Facemasks
  • 1981 First Air Cushioned Engineered Helmet
  • 1989 First X-Wide Cantilever
  • 1989 Protective Valve Cap System
  • 1989 First Official Supplier of Helmets and Pads to the National Football League
  • 1990 First Air Impact System
  • 1990 First Chambered Air Transfer System
  • 1990 First Official Supplier of Helmets and Pads to the World Football League
  • 1991 First Self-Contained Inflation Helmet
  • 1994 Riddell Acquires SharCo
  • 2001 Riddell introduces The Revolution TM football helmet
  • 2004 -- Riddell announces launch of Riddell Sideline Response System, a new technology that combines a real-time, on- field head impact telemetry system (HIT System), team management software, and cognitive testing to provide a new standard of care for the athlete.

NFL Football Helmets


Early Helmet History


RT-2 1946-1953

The Riddell Tenite II helmet was the first helmet manufactured and sold by the company. Tenite II was the shell material, which was manufactured by Tennessee Eastman Corporation. Its chemical name was cellulose acetate butyrate. The shell of this helmet was composed of three separate pieces. The right and left halves were assembled, and the solvent assembled joint was reinforced by the third member. This member was a piece of extruded Tenite II that was solvent assembled over the joint of the two halves. The head and neck suspension was manufactured from a cotton webbing. This was a three-loop, six-point, standard suspension.

RK-4 1954-1966

This helmet was the same mold and the same structure as the RT-2, however the shell material was changed to Riddell Kralite, whose chemical name was Acrilonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS). ABS was first manufactured for us by U.S. Rubber. In 1955, we changed to the Marbon Corporation. In 1957, the cotton webbing was replaced by a combination cotton-nylon webbing, still in the three-loop, six-point, standard configuration.

TK-5 1955-1966

This helmet was the first manufactured and sold with a one-piece shell. The TK stands for TruKurv, referring to the configuration of the one piece shell. The shell material was ABS and the suspension, a three-loop, six-point, standard suspension, was initially cotton. In 1957, it was changed to a combination cotton-nylon webbing.

RK-2 1961-1969

This was an RK-4 with the six-loop, twelve-point, multi-crown suspension instead of the three- loop, six-point, standard suspension.

RK-2L 1961-1969

This helmet was the same as and RK-2, except it had an extra-large shell to accommodate head sizes above 7 7/8.

RAC-K2 1965-1969

This helmet was an RK-2 with an Aero-Cell Suspension, which consisted of the multi-crown webbed suspension plus eight Riddell Aero-Cells placed between the shell and suspension.

RAC-K2L 1965-1969

This helmet was the same as an RAC-K2, except it had an extra-large shell to accommodate head sizes above 7 7/8.

TK-2 1962-1978

When first manufactured, this helmet was experimental, using the six-loop, twelve-point, multi- crown suspension, in a one-piece polycarbonate shell. In 1963, it became necessary to discontinue the experimental polycarbonate shell due to its extreme sensitivity in the presence of lacquer solvents and many detergents. These materials imbrittled the polycarbonate to such a degree that nearly all of the strength properties were lost. The further use of the TK-2 designation was given to the six-loop, twelve-point, multi-crown suspension, mounted in an ABS shell. So from 1962 on the TK-5 had the standard suspension and the TK-2 had the multi-crown suspension. In 1969, the shell material was changed from ABS to an alloy of polycarbonate, Kralite II.

RAC-H2 1965-1969

This helmet was the same as a TK-2, with the addition of eight Aero-Cells placed between the multi-crown suspension and the ABS shell.

RAC-H8 1969 -1978

This helmet was also the same as a TK-2, with the addition of eighteen Aero-Cells plus a vinyl foam head liner in addition to the multi-crown suspension.

TK-2AC 1970-1973

This helmet was the same as an RAC-H2, except the shell was polycarbonate alloy instead of ABS. It had eight Aero-Cells in addition to the multi-crown suspension.

TK-2L 1971-1973

This helmet was the same as a TK-2. except it had an extra large suspension to accommodate head sizes above 7 3/4.

JR-6 1966

This helmet was the same as TK-2, except the webbed suspension was green.

MICRO-FIT 1970-1981

This helmet contained four elements of impact absorption. They are the one piece KRA-Lite II shell, air-cells, fluid cells, and pad inserts. The air-cells are inflatable, and are designed for inflation while the helmet is on the user's head, providing a custom fit for each individual. By inflating the appropriately placed air cells, an entire team can be fitted with two shell sizes, the HA-91 for sizes 6 ½ to 7, and the HA-92 for 7 1/8 to 7 3/4.

TAK-29 1970-1978

This helmet consisted of a combination of the features of the TK-2 and the Micro-Fit. It had the one piece Kra-Lite II shell, with a six-loop, twelve-point, Multi-crown suspension. However, the webbed neck suspension was removed and replaced with the inflatable neck piece from the Micro-Fit.

PAC-3 1974-1982

This was the padded aero-cell helmet. It consisted of an interior system of thirty-two or thirty- three individual vinyl air cushions (depending on shell size) with layers of fitting and energy absorbing foam, in a one-piece Kra-Lite II shell.

PAC-3XL 1976-1982

This helmet was the same as the PAC-3, except it has an extra large shell to accommodate head sizes above 7 7/8.

PAC-44 1975-1994

This was a youth helmet. It had the vinyl air cushion interior the same as the PAC-3, but the shell was of ABS. It was designed for use through the ninth grade.

College Football Helmets


Evolution of the Football Helmet


An excerpt from
The Official NFL Encyclopedia
By Beau Riffenburgh

Jerseys and pants identify players. Helmets and pads protect them. The one event that more than any other was responsible for making these articles of protection necessary took place in 1888. The annual rules convention for the emerging sport of college football passed a rule permitting tackling below the waist. Football changed dramatically. Teams no longer arrayed themselves across the entire breadth of the field. Teams bunched themselves around the runner to block for him. The wedge and mass play arrived. Football became, for a time, a savage sport full of fights, brawling, even fatalities.

Grudgingly, football players accepted the wearing of protective equipment. Step-by-step, players braved being called sissies to wear pads of various types that in just a few years would be considered essential.

The article they accepted last of all was the helmet. The banal head harnesses and then the leather helmets that emerged were always disdained by a macho few. Even Glenn (pop) Warner counseled his Carlisle players against them in 1912. "Playing without helmets gives players more confidence, saves their heads from many hard jolts, and keeps their ears from becoming torn or sore," he said. "I do not encourage their use. I have never seen an accident to the head which was serious, but I have many times seen cases when hard bumps on the head so dazed the player receiving them that he lost his memory for a time and had to be removed from the game."

Gerald Ford, who later became President of the United States, played center for Michigan in 1932-34 without a helmet. It was not a required article of equipment in college football until 1939.

The National Football League did not require the wearing of helmets until 1943, although the great majority of professional players had long since taken to wearing them. The last NFL player to play in a game without a helmet probably was end Dick Plasman of the Chicago Bears in 1940. There is a photo of him without one, taken during the 1940 championship game in which Chicago crushed the Washington Redskins 73-0.

End Bill Hewitt of the Bears and Philadelphia Eagles was another player who took the field without anything covering his head, and he eventually was elected to the Hall of Fame, making him far better known than Plasman. Hewitt, however, retired in 1939. He came back for one season during World War II, 1943, but by then the rules required him to put on a helmet.

Ivy League teams played in the first games, wrote the first rules, and formed the first college football association. In 1889, Princeton players adopted the practice of growing their hair long to protect themselves against head injuries. According to researcher Paul Quam, "this fad swept the country, and football players with their unsightly mops of hair became the delight of cartoonists."

Wearing long hair while playing football went out of fashion, according to Quam, "when a championship Yale team appeared with close-cropped heads in 1895." (The crew-cut became de rigueur and remained in fashion for nearly 70 years). The next phase in the development of the helmet began with the appearance of the head harness. Its name had a little of the livery stable in it, and that is not surprising since the age of the automobile in America was just beginning.

George Barclay of Lafayette College probably developed the head harness in 1896. He designed a headgear which had three thick leather straps forming a tight fit around his head, and had it made by a harness maker. It was only logical that it became known as a head harness.

Contraptions made of an assortment of straps and pads turned into leather caps. They acquired ear flaps and then the flaps acquired ear holes, which must have improved communication greatly. There is no way these things could have provided anything more than rudimentary protection to the portion of the football-playing population that wore them.

Nose protectors were an interesting by-product of the head harness era. Edgar Allen Poe was an All-America back at Princeton as well as a grand-nephew of the famous author of the same name. He used a nose guard against Yale in 1890. Other players started using it. A hard leather proboscis hung from a strap around the forehead, fit over the nose, and had an extension at the bottom that the wearer clenched in his teeth to hold the device in place. They interfered with good vision and that even more important requisite of a person going through strenuous activity—the ability to breathe easily. "No player should wear a nose protector unless he has a sore nose," said Pop Warner in 1912. One of the oddest creations in the history of football equipment soon went out of style.

The head harness began to take the shape and appearance we would recognize today as a football helmet. That soon became its name, instead of head harness. But it still had a serious deficiency. As long as it sat right down on the skull, it was only pretending to protect the wearer. Then suspension appeared, probably in 1917, to cradle the skull away from the leather shell. Straps of fabric formed a pattern inside the helmet. They absorbed and distributed the impact better, and they allowed for ventilation. It was a tremendous breakthrough in helmet-making. Rawlings introduced the Zuppke helmet, designed by the Illinois coach, and Spalding introduced the first of what would become a well-known line, its "ZH' helmets, in 1925.

An innovation 14 years later, however, dwarfed all that had gone before. Gerry E. Morgan and other employees of the John T. Riddell Company in Chicago, manufacturers of sporting goods, invented and patented a plastic football helmet in 1939. It was a single molded shell. It was stronger, more durable, and lighter than leather helmets, and it wouldn't rot or mildew the way they did when damp. It had a revolutionary web suspension inside it.

In 1940, Riddell devised the first chinstrap worn on the chin and not the Adam's apple, and the first plastic face mask.

Most plastics are synthetic. They are derived from petroleum, coal, salt, air, and water. They are light in weight, but for their weight they are prodigiously strong. Thermoplastics are one type; the name means they are remeltable. Among the 15 or more types of thermoplastics are acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) and polycarbonate. Their features are excellent toughness and high impact strength. They are the plastics used in football helmets.

Riddell made its plastic helmets and they were worn for the first time in a game by some of the players in the Chicago College All-Star Game of 1939. The company also had another first. Founder John T. Riddell and owner-coach George Halas of the Bears devised low-cut football shoes, and the 1940 Bears became the first team ever to wear such shoes.

Riddell's plastic helmet was a little flat on top at first but it gradually changed to its characteristic tear-drop shape, which allowed the impact of a blow to slide to one side or the other rather than be met head-on. Its web suspension could be raised or lowered to fit the head of whatever person pulled it on.

The eve of a world war, however, was not the best time to come up with a new sports invention. Football was not an essential industry, and Riddell could not get plastic. The full- fledged assault on the leather helmet had to wait until the war ended.

The fact that the United States Military Academy football team of 1944 became the first to ever wear plastic helmets may have resulted from the Army being privy to Riddell's research, or it may have been because Army was coached by a bright, innovative, and far-thinking man, Earl (Red) Blaik. He won national championships in 1944 and 1945 with a pair of backs, Felix (Doc) Blanchard and Glenn Davis, who wore the new Riddell plastic helmets.

There were problems, however. The plastic in the helmets of Riddell and those of competitors who entered the market was sometimes brittle; a drill boring a hole to attach a face mask would pop right through. The plastic's resistance to blows was in doubt after linebacker Fred Naumetz of the Los Angeles Rams split nine plastic helmets in one season. They were banned from use in the NFL in 1948. Riddell's future was in doubt. It was apparently saved by the intercession in its behalf of Halas of the Bears. The plastic helmet was restored for 1949, and the leather helmet became extinct.

Paint on football helmets goes back almost as far as helmets themselves. Rawlings introduced a white helmet in 1920 that it said "may be kept white with gasoline or painted in college colors if desired." The Brooklyn Dodges had silver helmets in 1937. Halfback Fred Gehrke of the Los Angeles Rams, who had studied art at the University of Utah, painted a horn design on the rams' helmets in 1948, the first helmet emblem. Distinctive designs became the trademarks of pro football teams.

Gehrke's paint kept chipping off every game, however, and he and his teammates had to paint the emblems back on the helmets constantly. The legalization of plastic helmets in 1949 made it possible to bake color into helmets and greatly expand its use on them. As a result, football became far more colorful. Helmets became coordinated with jerseys and pants.

The nose protector was the forerunner of the face mask. Nose protector helmets were found during the transition to face masks. The manufacturers began making them as early as 1927: that was the first year one appeared in the Spalding Guide. A molded piece of leather with holes for the eyes and mouth covered the entire face. It looked like a ski mask or the visor of a knight errant. Without a doubt, it was the most bizarre-looking piece of football apparel ever made. The dearth of photographs of anyone wearing one of them bears out their confirmed lack of acceptance, probably because they were unbearably hot.

The first person to devise a bar face mask on a football helmet was Vern McMillan, the owner of a sporting goods store in Terre Haute, Indiana. It was a rubber-covered wire mask on a leather helmet. Such masks were used in the mid-1930s. There is a face mask on the helmet of a New York Giants player in a photo in a 1937 issue of SPORT.

The superior rigidity of the plastic helmet made the universality of the face mask possible. The hole drilled for the bolt holding the mask would not expand the way it would if it was drilled through leather. And the sides of the plastic helmet would not collapse, driving the nut into the wearer's face.

As use of the plastic helmet spread, so did makeshift face masks. Linemen needed them more than backs, and began crafting odd cages of leather-and tape-covered wire. When Joe Perry of the San Francisco 49ers suffered a broken jaw in 1954, he wore a face mask manufactured of clear lucite plastic. Lucite, however, frequently shattered and it was banned. The breakthrough in face masks came in 1955. G.E. Morgan, a consultant to Riddell, and Paul Brown, coach of the Cleveland Browns, invented the BT-5 face mask for quarterback Otto Graham, who was dominating pro football and against whom pass rushers sometimes led with the elbow. The "BT" in the invention's name was for bar tubular; it was a single tubular bar that was a combination of rubber and plastic. Graham wore it one year and retired from pro football.

From the BT-5 came a variety of single bars, double bars, triple bars, masks, cages, and "birdcages." Plastic and rubber tubing or welded steel or aluminum with a vinyl plastisol coating were used in their construction. Cages once reserved only for linemen came to be adopted by backs as well. Bobby Layne of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who retired in 1962, was one of the last players to play without a face mask. Years later, Billy Kilmer of the Washington Redskins was one of the few men still playing with only a single bar.

Morgan and Brown came up with another invention the year after their BT-5 face mask. They put a citizen's band radio in quarterback George Ratterman's helmet. Brown, who was on the sideline, had a transmitter and Ratterman had a receiver. The quarterback couldn't talk back to the coach. The experiment with this device in a game was brief. There was interference on the frequency. Expecting to hear Brown call the next play, Ratterman instead heard two women talking incoherently. The experiment ended, and the next year the NFL banned radio-quipped football helmets.

Chinstraps were improved by the addition of ribbed vinyl-coated chincups. College football, intent on preventing injuries by keeping the helmet securely on the head, began requiring four-point chinstraps in 1976; they snapped onto the helmet at four places instead of two.

Mouthpieces also became a requisite in college football and some players continued to wear them as they entered pro football. Others complained that the rubber mouthpieces made it difficult to speak or even breathe at times and could even induce gagging and nausea.

Energy-absorbing helmets of the space age entered pro football in 1971. Morgan, by then chairman of the board of Riddell, was granted a patent for "Energy Absorbing and Sizing Means for Helmets." The result was the company's new HA-91 and HA-92 energy-absorbing, "microfit" helmets. They had valves on their crown to allow air to be pumped into vinyl cushions that were crammed into every available space inside the helmet. The player put it on and then had it pumped up by the equipment manager to fit firmly around the player's head. Fluid could be pumped in, too. These were the so-called "water helmets." Actually, an anti- freeze solvent was used, to prevent a helmet from freezing atop a player's head in the middle of a cold day at Green Bay or Bloomington.

Riddell's older TK-2 web suspension helmet, however, refused to give way to the microfits. Veterans everywhere in the NFL who had worn Riddell's and other suspension helmets stayed with them. Among other things, they said, suspension provided better ventilation. Players at the speed positions such as running back, wide receiver, and cornerback preferred suspension helmets because they were lighter.

Riddell's PAC-3, a "padded aero cell," made its debut in 1974. This time the vinyl cushions did not have to be pumped up; maintenance was reduced and players did not have to stand in line at the equipment manager's desk to have their helmets blown up. The PAC-3 had 32 individual vinyl air cushions with layers of energy-absorbing foam. Small holes in the crown allowed the cushions inside to dissipate the force of the impact and carry it away through the orifices in the surface.

Linemen have the most collisions and so they need the best padding and the largest cages or face masks. With all this hardware on and in the helmet, it can get rather heavy. Norm Evans, a tackle for the Seattle Seahawks and the Miami Dolphins, said in On the Line, "Until I learned to do exercises to strengthen my neck, the hardest part of every training camp for me was starting to wear a helmet again. The first time I'd put the helmet on, my head would go clunk! over to one side. You know those things weigh about two-and-a-half pounds. After a few days I'd get to where I could draw my head down into my neck. Then there's a way I could tilt the face mask at a certain angle. Between the two positions, I could keep my helmet upright."

The Stanford Research Institute noted in its 1974 study that helmets "have gradually become thicker and more rigid." The NFL, NCAA, and National Federation of State High School Association make it mandatory that all players wear helmets that meet test standards of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

NFL Football Helmets         
College Football Helmets


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