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At first glance, it may appear as though every football player is wearing the same type of helmet ~ except for the colors and decals. However, a closer inspection will reveal that those big round spherical things on their head are not uniform. There are different types.
When considering all levels of tackle football play, there are 3 classifications of helmets: youth, varsity, and professional. Some might say there also are hardshell and softshell football helmets. However, in reality those are styles of the 3 classifications of football helmets.
Almost all youth, varsity (adult), and (especially) professional football helmets are the hardshell version, meaning the round exterior of football helmets are made of the very hard and durable modern plastic, molded polycarbonate.
Softshell football helmets are like what the name implies: a not-hard outer shell, like the old leather helmets of football. They are used almost always for flag football, and also sometimes in high-contact games like rugby or lacrosse.
In recent years another type of football helmet has surfaced: the position-specific football helmet. The first, designed for quarterbacks, will debut in the National Football League for the 2023 season.
Position-specific helmets are designed while taking into account unique speeds and spots on a head that take hard impacts for each position, or group of positions, like linemen. Which, by the way, are the only other NFL positions with helmets made just for them.
By the 2024 season, the NFL hopes for position-based helmet models for wide receivers and defensive backs.
Football helmets for professionals and adults have shells made with the hardest plastic available, and best-designed for this faster and heavier style of play.
Youth football helmet shells are created with hard plastic, but not as hard as those for older players. Why? Reduced weight.
The neck is a very vulnerable part of the body for all football players. A heavy helmet can fatigue neck muscles, which can result in awkward collisions that lead to injuries.
Young neck muscles are not fully developed yet; nor is the spinal cord that runs through it. With all this in mind, helmet-makers design youth helmets to be lighter in weight, and also to offer other features to be more protective of the area of the neck and the connection with the skull.
The cutoff age is 14 years old. Before that, players’ helmet shells are made of the lighter acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABA, or sometimes ABS), which is lighter and easier for younger players to use. After age 14, players need helmets made of polycarbonate ~ just like the guys on television use.
Important Note: Parents buying helmets for their kids should know the particular equipment and uniform rules for the league to be played in. Polycarbonate and ABA helmets cannot be used in the same game, as the ABA helmets could be damaged and cause injuries
From age 14 and up, the helmet sizes of course get larger. From there, the differences depend on the model. Manufacturers now apply modern science and technology to deliver helmets specifically designed for the college and professional games.
For those looking for differences, here are some features you might come across with helmets for older football players:
- Side-impact protection. Football helmets for larger adults especially for top-level play are apt to include new elements to better protect the sides of the head, like around the ears, and a little higher.
- Inflatable liners. This is not a new invention, as a lot of old-school high school helmets were filled with low-tech air bladders to inflate when needed. However the modern pouch liners can help greatly with fit and comfort.
- Impact reduction or impact stabilizers. Adult football helmets can be built of different shell parts, designed to move a little (in tandem) on big collisions, to absorb the energy.
- Bigger jaw pads. Pads along the sides, from the ear to the chin, might be larger or made of special materials to protect an area that sometimes allows too much force and causes concussions. (We have previously researched and published an article on how well football helmets prevent concussions)
Football helmets have evolved much through the years, starting with the first one, a makeshift contraption of straps of leather and earpads that a player used in 1869. However, common use of most players for helmets did not arrive until the 1920s.
Original helmets, of course, were made of leather and most remained that way deep into the 1930s. Technological advancements, starting when the Riddell company of Chicago delivered the first hard plastic football helmet, continue to this day. Real-life game experiences help manufacturers shape and design safer helmets.
Whereas the plastic helmet was thought to be very protective due to the hardness of the material holding its shape upon hard impacts, more modern helmets are designed in pieces that can move; or of a material that just gives more than the super-hard plastics.
What is the Number 1 Football Helmet?
Most NFL players wear Riddell helmets, with the brand’s SpeedFlex models ranking high both for professionals as well as amateurs. There are a variety of SpeedFlex models, available in all classifications.
In fact, the youth version of the Riddell SpeedFlex once topped our rankings for the top youth football helmets.
Why Riddell? Probably because all professional football players played at the high school level, where Riddell has absolutely dominated the market. It’s slowly beginning to change with the introduction of other brands and models, but most NFL players are familiar with their helmets.
Familiarity with a helmet brand is important, as football helmet fittings can be mighty prickly. Some players may have experimented with other brands for their helmet, and found they just fit differently.
Not that they were any worse, or any less safe. It’s just that when a person wears something over their entire head for hours at a time, sweating and releasing heat the whole time, they want to be as comfortable as possible in it.
Riddell has delivered quality football helmets for over a century, and a lot of top-level players are just quite familiar with their models.
In fact, from 1989 to 2013, Riddell was the NFL’s official helmet provider, meaning it was the only company during that time to have its name printed above the face mask.
That agreement ended in 2013 and allowed other brands to better compete for shares of the professional football player market.
While there are over 30 models approved for use in the NFL, the top sellers for NFL players far and away are Riddell, Schutt, Xenith, and VICIS.
In terms of testing for top-level football play, the Riddell SpeedFlex Precision Diamond model ranked highest.
Question: Can you still buy one of those old-fashioned leather football helmets without the mask?
Answer: Yes, online by visiting sites like this.
Q.: Do any companies known for making baseball gear also make football helmets?
A.: Rawlings did for many years, but stopped manufacturing football helmets in 2017 ~ to focus on all its baseball products! Schutt produces a lot of helmets for baseball and fastpitch softball, among other sporting goods items.