March, 20 2023
The game of football has evolved since its beginning in the late 1860s to the game we know today. Formations have changed. Score keeping has changed. Rules have changed. Teams have changed. And of course, players have changed.
But one thing we may not think about when contemplating the history of the game is the evolution of equipment used by players throughout the sport’s decorated history.
Today’s equipment is largely protective, durable and portable. How has this changed since the early days and recent decades?
The first football helmet, made by an Annapolis shoemaker, was worn by Navy Midshipman Joe Reeves in the early 1890s. Reeves was told by his physician that if he were to be kicked in the head again it would cause “instant insanity.”
When they were first introduced, helmets were called “head harnesses.” And the early ones did little in terms of offering protection, as they had little to no padding.
The first significant change came when the suspension helmet was developed in the 1930s. With the new design, straps inside the helmet actually kept the skull away from the helmet shell.
In the 1940s, manufacturers started using plastic to produce helmets. Still incorporating the suspension design from the ‘30s, commercial facemasks became available in the late 1940s but were not widely used until nearly a decade later.
By the 1980s, all players were wearing helmets we’re familiar with today — complete with air and foam padding that replaced the suspension straps.
The first “football” was actually a round rubber ball. When rugby-like rules replaced soccer-like rules, the new ball was made using leather with a rubber bladder. Over time, the ball became more and more streamlined to facilitate passing, which did not become legal until 1906.
Since 1934, very little about the shape of the ball has changed. Now, of course, different synthetic materials and machinery may be used to mass-produce footballs, but very little about the overall design, shape and feel has changed since the early to mid-1900s.
The first shoulder pads were just bags filled with cotton or horse hair that were literally sewn into the jerseys (how protective!). It wasn’t until 1910 that the first separate shoulder pads were developed. Even then, they were nothing more than thin pads that sat on player’s shoulders.
Then in the early 1930s, the first cantilever shoulder pads were developed. Straps held the pads away from the shoulders in order to better absorb shock. Since that time, pads have remained basically unchanged —only with more padding, larger frames and lighter materials.
The first cleats used for football were actually developed for another sport: baseball. But in 1873, metal baseball cleats became illegal and were replaced by wood and leather spikes.
Later, in the 1920s, interchangeable rubber cleats emerged. When rules were established mandating a large surface area for the cleat to prevent skin and clothing penetration, metal again became an acceptable material for cleats.
In the mid-1920s, the first “low cut” shoe was introduced although “high tops” were still more popular until the late 1950s.
Decades later, with the development of artificial turf, significant changes came to sports footwear. Instead of the traditional “spikes” (which is sometimes still used to refer to cleats now), the entire sole of the shoe contained numerous smaller “cleats” on a one-piece molded sole.
Today’s football shoes incorporate these smaller cleats and are also made from lighter synthetic materials.
Artificial turf first came into play in 1965, when grass was unable to grow, live and thrive in the Houston Astrodome, the nation’s first indoor stadium. Since AstroTurf was introduced, many other manufactures have joined the competitive landscape, such as Sporturf, Poly Turf, Tartan Turf, Mondo Turf and others.
Over time, it is believed that artificial turf may actual cause more injuries than it prevents. In the early 2000s, teams began using a new artificial surface that includes small bits of rubber mixed with longer “grass” blades that gave the surface a softer and more natural feel.
The first football jerseys were simply uniform wool or cotton pullover shirts and later, in the 1870s and 80s, included canvas and moleskin jackets and sweaters.
Wool pullover jerseys became standard in the early 1900s, and some teams added “grip-sure” materials to aid in securing the football. The wool pullovers remained popular for nearly four decades but fell out of favor in the late 1930s.
Synthetic materials were first used to manufacture jerseys in the 1940s, and during the 1960s and early 1970s, some players started wearing “tear-away” materials.
Over time, jerseys have developed a mesh-like appearance and feel to keep players cool and enable moisture wicking. They’ve also become more and more form-fitting, making holding less likely and tackling more difficult.
Kent Stephens is the curator and historian at the College Football Hall of Fame and Chick-fil-A Fan Experience. Kent has been a part of the Hall staff since 1990 when it was located in Kings Island, Ohio. He relocated with the Hall to South Bend, Ind., and moved to Atlanta in 2013, becoming the only member of the staff to serve at all three locations.