by Team Snapbac
If you had never seen a football game and came across an NFL player in full gear, you would think you had run into a giant robot. They are literally covered from head to toe in pads, performance gear and protective equipment, but this was not always the case. Football is not the same game that was first brought over from England and played in the late 1860s. It was much closer to rugby back in the beginning, and players wore little more than jerseys, shorts and trainers. When Princeton and Rutgers played the first college football game on November 6, 1869, you did not see helmets, thigh boards and shoulder pads. In fact, most sources claim the first helmets to be seen during a game was not until the Army Navy game in Annapolis in 1893, and even then it was optional!
So why has American football gear strayed so far from its rugby roots? We have Walter Camp to thank for that. Some would say he is the true father of American football and made the sport what it is today through a long series of rule changes. Not only did he create the line of scrimmage in 1880 and the original three-down and five system, he made major changes in the collision style of the game by allowing tackling below the waist, designing the offensive field positions, the current point system and cutting the number of players from fifteen to eleven! Camp’s modifications to the game had actually made it so dangerous that President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in and from national talks, the NCAA was created further solidifying the Yale-Harvard rivalry, as Camp was with Yale and Harvard was the Roosevelt’s alma mater.
The game’s aggression was still very present, and in 1905 alone, 23 college players actually died from injuries incurred during the game. It was then that the rules were modified yet again and a list of protective football gear became mandatory instead of optional. Ironically, a helmet was not on that list until 1939.
It may be argued that American football is one of the most physically dangerous team sports in existence, but with modern technology, mandatory protective and training equipment and a more evolved system of rules and regulations, the sport is rarely fatal.
Shoulder pads were some of the first equipment used in football and what began distinguishing it from its rugby roots. Princeton student L.P. Smock watched his school face off against Rutgers in that first game in 1869, and it set his mind and creativity in motion. In 1877, eight years later, he introduced the first set of shoulder pads made from leather and wool and sewn directly into the jersey. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the harness style was created to be pulled over the head and fastened at the chest. As plastics began to be mass produced, the game saw the first plastic shoulder and chest protection in the 1960s.
As injuries continued to the torso and chest, the football gear spread to protect the center of the body including the ribs. In the last couple of decades, chest and shoulder pads have seen the largest improvement from modern technology leaving behind the hulking form of the 90s. Today’s materials are strong, protective, light-weight and have a slim design giving players more mobility, agility and improved comfort with ventilation.
The pants and pads really haven’t changed that much since they came into use in the 1880s. Pants were originally canvas while today they are usually nylon and mesh or nylon and spandex. They have a traditional lace-up fly as a zipper would be a bad idea with the abrasion and impact of the game. Originally the pads were actually sewn into the pants much like the pads in the jersey, but today’s pants have two interior side pockets in each leg to hold a thigh pad and a knee pad which are put in before the player puts the pants on.
In the 1890s, quilted hip pads were added and were some of the original protective gear along with shoulder pads. Today, players wear a type of girdle under their pants that secures foam rubber guards for their hips, pelvis and tailbone.
The first helmets were little more than homemade leather coverings and ear flaps, but they provided moderate protection and were decorative displaying school spirit and field positions. As the forward pass was introduced in 1906, receivers wore specific colors painted on their helmets so the quarterback could spot them easier. With the invention of plastic in the 1940s, Riddell, a Chicago based sporting goods manufacturer, patented the first football helmet and head protection has only gotten better. In the 70s, Riddell introduced interior vinyl pads that could be inflated to provide better impact protection and a secure fit. In 1953, Riddell constructed the first official face mask for the helmet specifically for Otto Graham, the quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, it was constructed with Lucite which shattered on impact and was later banned by the NFL. They quickly came back with the classic single bar facemask which caught on in popularity leading to the facemask penalty in the late 50s.
Today, Riddell still designs the ultimate helmets using modern technology for comfort, protection, fit and weight. Their Revolution Speed helmet is the typical choice for players, but as new technology evolves, they will be challenged to stay number one. Former Washington Redskins’ cornerback, Shawn Springs, is using his 13-season career knowledge to create better gear for today’s players. After a car accident with his wife and 5-year old son, he took note that his child was completely unharmed. This was in large part due to the materials and technology used in his car seat.
He has now assembled a team of engineers who created the Crash Cloud technology for Windpact to design the safest and most comfortable helmet to date. They will use an exact combination of custom foam with controlled airflow that stays soft when compressed from a medium impact but instantly firms with a heavier impact. Due to its design as a multi-chamber system, it can be molded and fit to nearly any configuration, including athletic helmets!
The shoe in football may be the piece of gear that has undergone the most changes and continues to be refined and fit for specific positions, field types and weather. The game was originally played in heavy boots that were much better for industrial work then sports, but they were steal toed, provided better support and held up. The first real football shoes didn’t look much different than the work boot and were termed football boots. As they began to design shoes for athletics, they first created what appeared to be a slim, dress shoe. Today we have the rugged, durable build of a work boot with the sophistication and functionality of a sport’s shoe.
It was actually the popularity of soccer, that drove the development of the cleat as players wanted better foot control and mobility through varied weather and field conditions. This is how the cleat was designed, but they were originally metal tabs that were individually screwed into the bottom of the shoe. With the overwhelming popularity of soccer and the voice of the players, manufacturers improved the cleat and began producing shoes with removable cleats and built in cleats. As football grew in popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, the gridiron shoe finally began to take shape for professional players.
Today there are a number of favorites ranging from high-ankle cuts similar to the original boot and low cuts and the preference is in large part due to the player’s position and style. For example, Nike’s CJ Elite 2 was specifically designed for former Detroit Lions’ wide receiver, Calvin Johnson. It is heavier than most with a lockdown strap and fast release cleats that still bite down for red zone touchdowns. These shoes have been seen on several players in the NFL including Robert Quinn.
Under Armour is another fiercely competitive sport’s gear manufacturer, and their cleat, Fierce Havoc, is equally challenging. This shoe has a slightly higher build in between a boot and a low-cut cleat and is fairly heavy as well. It is not built for speed but rather incredible support. If you prefer the high boot cut, they also created the Highlight which may be tall, but it remains light weight and very flexible. It is a favorite amongst running backs as it form-fits to the ankle and gives amazing support while accommodating speed.
There are thousands of gridiron football shoes out there in numerous styles and functions to meet the demands of every player, and they will continue to design new options as technology advances.
This may be obvious, but as your kitting out your body with all the necessary equipment, you may forget about the design and integrity of the ball, yet it is truly the most important piece of football gear. The ball has not changed much for either rugby or American football as its roots are a bit more buried in an ancient sport called harpastum, a ball game played in Rome. The rugby ball is a bit wider with more rounded points but both balls are 11 inches long. The structural integrity of the ball was debatable depending on the manufacturer, and the ball in the first game in 1869 wouldn’t hold its shape at all.
It wasn’t until a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox produced the first leather ball with lacing in 1887 that the shape could be controlled. His name was Spalding. The first leather footballs still had blunt ends, but at least they retained their oval shape. It was simply time and technology that modified the balls design to today’s pointed ends and sleek shape. The changes in the ball also impacted the game which introduced the forward pass in 1906. Recognizing the influence the ball had on the success of the passes and punts, the NFL finally issued specific size, weight and color standards.
There are other pieces of gear that are needed for a safe game, but the above are the basics. If you’re just starting to play on a team, you will need a bit more. Here is a complete football gear and accessories list to make sure you cover all your essentials.
Football gloves for linemen or receivers
Football socks to go with those cleats
Uniform, practice and compression pants
Uniform, practice and compression jerseys
Back plate and rib protection
Athletic cup, jock strap or supporters
Chin strap or shield
Compression arm sleeves
Lastly, there are a few tips and tricks from NFL players to fit your gear just right and maximize game play. With the incredible innovation in gear technology and materials, there is no reason to not wear what is comfortable, functional and increases your edge on the field. Don’t be like former Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Sam Bradford, who lost field advantage because of an improperly sized jersey! Get your gear snug and under regulation. Of course, staying in shape with football exercise routines can help you maintain your shape and size, reducing the need for gear resizing.
To avoid a flapping shirt, the pro tip is double-sided tape. Players cover their shoulder pads in the sticky tape and stretch the jersey over top essentially taping it in place to avoid giving their attackers anything to hold onto.
For a small advantage in speed and comfort, players have started to cut down their knee pads to only the necessary circle and separating the plastic from the thigh boards. They can then choose to wear only the plastic or the foam. Either way, it will make the protective gear a bit lighter.
If you’re a long snapper, you need full mobility in your neck and the shoulder pads can be very restrictive with the small neck hole. Some pros like to cut a little more room into the neck area so they don’t bunch up when they drop their heads. Speaking of those shoulder pads, that plastic can really be painful during a tackle as it digs into your skin. Some players still use spider pads, while others rely on the increased shoulder padding in the dri-fit gear. Either way, a little extra padding can go a long way.
There are other tips that have been passed down through the years, but as football gear improves, fewer modifications and tricks are needed.