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Leather Football Helmet History

Football historians, those who have studied the game and its origins, place the games beginnings in rugby, an English game played with many similarities to football. Rugby began in eighteen twenty-three at the famous Rugby Boys School in England. Another cousin of the game of football is soccer, sometimes called association football; its beginnings can also be traced to English origin, being played as early as the eighteen twenties.


A group of students at Princeton who did not wear leather football helmets began playing an early version of football. First using their fists to advance the ball, and then their feet, this game consisted mainly of one goal: to advance the old watermelon football past the opposing team. There were no hard and fast rules applied to this earliest attempt at the game we now call football.  At Harvard, the freshman and sophomore classes, who also did not at first wear leather football helmets, competed in a football-type game, played on the first Monday of each school year; this event came to be known as Bloody Monday because of the roughness of the game. Pickup games, where there were no leather football helmets, similar in style to that played on Bloody Monday, soon became popular on the Boston Common, catching on in popularity around 1860.

Soon after the end of the American Civil War, the leather football helmet had not been invented.   Around 1865, colleges began organizing football games. None of these early teams wore leather football helmets. In 1867, Princeton led the way in establishing some rudimentary rules of the game. But still, leather football helmets were not used or invented. Players simply tied a bandana around their heads. Also in that year, the football itself was patented for the very first time. That early ball was a crude watermelon, almost round shape. But still no way to protect the players from death or concussions because there were no leather football helmets even thought of during these early years. 

Rutgers College also established a set of rules in 1867, and with the relatively short distance between it and Princeton, a game was decided upon by both universities. A date was chosen, November 6, 1869; Rutgers won by a score of 6 - 4, and thus was played what has become known as the very first intercollegiate football game. No leather football helmets were worn during this contest. The flying wedge plays injured many because they had no leather football helmets.

In 1873, representatives from Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale met in New York City to formulate the first intercollegiate football rules for the increasingly popular game, still being played with many of the rules of soccer. These four teams established the Intercollegiate Football Association, and set the number of players allowed on each team to 15.  Walter Camp, the coach at Yale and a dissenter from the IFA over his desire for an 11 man team, helped begin the final step in the evolution from rugby-style play to the modern version of American football. The IFAs rules committee, led by Camp, soon cut the number of players from 15 to 11, and also instituted the size of the playing field, at 110 yards. But still no one thought to protect themselves better with a leather football helmet.

In 1882 Camp introduced the system of downs.  After first allowing 3 attempts to advance the ball 5 yards, in 1906 it was changed to 10 yards. The 4th down was added in 1912. Tackling below the waist had been legalized in 1888.  Within a decade, concern over the increasing brutality of the game led to its ban by some colleges.  Brutal plays that included walking on and trampling opposing players were the norm and leather football helmets still had not been invented to protect the head of the players of early football. Nearly 180 players had suffered serious injuries, and 18 deaths had been reported from the brutal mass plays that had become common in practice.

The earliest leather football helmets were invented by a Navy player in 1893. He asked a local blacksmith to improvise a leather harness hat to protect his head. His doctor said one more kick to the head would kill or paralyze him for life. Thus the first leather football helmet was born. Soon other players created additional styles of leather football helmets to protect their heads and ears. Still, the early leather football helmets provided little protection.

There were such styles as the early beehive leather football helmet, the flat-top leather football helmets and the dog-ear leather football helmet. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt called upon Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to help save the sport from demise.  At a meeting between the schools, reform was agreed upon, and at a second meeting, attended by more than 60 other schools, the group appointed a 7 member Rules Committee and set up what would later become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA. 

From this committee came the legalization of the forward pass, which resulted in a more open style of play on the field. The rough mass plays, which once caused so many serious injuries, and even deaths, were prohibited by the committee. Also prohibited was the locking of arms by teammates in an effort to clear the way for their ball carriers. Still, many early teams wore no leather football helmets. But eventually the advantages of the leather football helmet were seen. Soon one could watch a game and observe half the players without leather football helmets and half with leather football helmets to protect their heads. 

The length of the game was shortened, from 70 to 60 minutes, and the neutral zone, which separates the teams by the length of the ball before each play begins, was also established. The earliest balls were called watermelon footballs and they have become almost extinct along with the earliest leather football helmets. Today these leather football helmets can only be found in museums or among fine collections of leather football helmets.

The leather football helmet evolution follows the great early college game as leather helmets first showed up in the 1890s and then the leather helmets gradually developed into a stronger and more protective piece of gear.


Professional football was first played soon after the demise of the Intercollegiate Football Association, around 1895. In 1920, the American Professional Football Association was formed; one year later it was reorganized and in 1922 was renamed the National Football League.  Some of the great early Pro players who wore leather football helmets were Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, the early Packer team, the early Bear team, the early Giant team, the early Philadelphia team, and the early Pittsburgh team.

Players wore varying style of leather football helmets. Colors also began to show up on the early 40s leather football helmets. Before that, most helmets were plain natural leather; brown, cordovan, or black. Color leather football helmets allowed the quarterback to see the receiver at long distances when he was far down the field. More and more teams began to paint their leather football helmets to put some visibility sizzle into their games. Unlike the APFA, which handed out franchises far and wide with little discretion, the NFL, from 1946-1949, was limited to 10 teams.

Gradually in the late 1940s the leather football helmet began to be replaced by early plastics. Many of the early plastic football helmets shattered and caused injury.  The leather football helmet survived thru the World War II years and lingered into the early 1950s. Gradually the old leather football helmet was replaced by the plastics and more and more teams began to add logos and symbols to their helmets.  The early leather football helmets were spared this clutter and remained unadorned right into the 50s era. Soon the old leather football helmet faded into history. Many poor high school teams and junior high teams still used these old leather helmets right into the 1960s and 70s. Today the leather football helmet is practically extinct and can only be found at museums or in fine collections.

The APFA, on the other hand, consisted of 23 teams in the year between its inception and the change-over in becoming the NFL.  A merger in 1970, 50 years after the inception of the first pro football association, combined 16 NFL teams with 10 AFL teams to comprise one league with two conferences. In the 1980s, further expansion was proposed and by the 93-94 NFL season, approval was given for a 30-team league. The next step towards growth of the league would be to realign the NFL into 8 different divisions, each with 4 teams. 

Pro football, like its college counterpart, was not without its failures. Among the number of competitive leagues that have folded in failure are the All-American Football conference, 1946-1949, the American Football League, 1960-1969, and the World Football League, 1974-1975.  Arena Football, an indoor league played in the spring with eight man teams, debuted in 1987. It is still played, but does not enjoy the popularity or success that is found in the National Football League.


From its humble beginnings in 1869, when the first intercollegiate game was played between Rutgers and Princeton, football has become a multi-billion dollar business in its professional form. Once watched by no more than a handful of loyal sideline enthusiasts, football is now available for worldwide viewing. With the advent of cable television, dozens of high school and college games can be watched over Friday and Saturday afternoons. Pro games are televised on Sunday and Monday nights, with at least half a dozen games televised each weekend during the season. At the end of each NFL season, champs from both the National and American conferences meet in the Super Bowl to determine a national champion. This game, always played in January, has been called the most watched sporting event of all time, with a viewing audience from around the entire globe, watching and listening to it televised in dozens of languages. Although television commercials foot a very large part of the bill, the competition between networks for the coverage rights highly inflates the value of NFL franchises. In 1920, a franchise cost $100. By 1960, each was worth approximately $2 million. In 1993, when the league decided to expand, selling teams to Charlotte, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida, the cost rose to $140 million per franchise.  In the same year, the NFL signed a 5-network, 4 year television contract, totaling almost $4.5 billion. 

The rare kinds and styles of leather football helmets worn by college and Pro teams can still be seen at their respective college campus museums, and at the College football hall of Fame Museum and or the Pro Football hall of Fame Museum in Canton Ohio. Today many sports history enthusiasts look for old leather football helmets for their collections or to offer as awards or commemoratives. These old battle helmets, the leather football helmet, will always represent the great history and evolution of the game.

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