History of Football Helmets

Low angle view of an American football player holding a helmet

In today's game of football, helmets are vital to preserving the health of players in the game. In the early days of football, helmets provided hardly any protection to the head and often resulted in serious head injuries, including fatalities. Safety is still a concern in the sport, with technologies constantly in development to improve head safety and reduce the risk and rate of concussions, which can end a player's career early and lead to long-term brain damage.

Early Helmets

The earliest helmets used in football featured almost no padding at all -- the helmets would be better described as head coverings made out of leather. These had little to no padding and had very little effect in softening blows to the head. According to PastTimeSports.biz, the first helmet of this type was worn in 1893 in a game between the Army and Navy football teams. Helmets continued to be worn from that point on, but the helmets themselves didn't undergo significant improvements until the 1940s.


By the time World War II had come around, helmets were starting to get some padding into them. Leather was still used, but better head protection offered some relief from head injuries. But these helmets still left players wide open to serious wounds and even brain damage, prompting greater improvements. By the 1950s teams started using plastic helmets with padding set inside the helmet. This was a significant upgrade over leather helmets, but it also allowed helmets and heads to be used as projectiles on the field, with players lowering their head to utilize the hard helmet surface when making contact with an opposing player.

Facemask Development

Facemasks help protect the face from serious injuries that can occur during a game. According to ESPN.com, the first facemask was featured in a 1953 game played by the Cleveland Browns. In the game, Browns quarterback Otto Graham suffered a jaw injury and needed some protection placed over his face so he could safely continue playing the game. At halftime, a metal protective cover was placed on the helmet to protect the jawbone, and Graham was able to continue playing the game. In today's NFL the simple, single-bar facemask developed for Graham is now banned in favor of facemasks that offer better protection to the head.


One of the most significant developments in football helmet technology was the development of the helmet radio. This device allows coaches on the sideline to communicate through an earpiece in a quarterback's helmet, making it easier to relay play calls in a loud, hostile environment. These helmets were invented in the 1950s but banned from NFL league play after just a few games. However, radios were reinstated in the 1990s and are now used by all teams in the NFL. Many college football teams also use this type of helmet.