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It’s the part of the football uniform that many fans first notice: those big shiny spherical things on players’ heads, adorned with the colors and emblems. Young fans, including some who have yet to wear a football helmet, are left to wonder what those things are made of.
Football helmets are made from various materials, depending on which part. These include molded polycarbonate for the outer shell; polyurethane or foam on the interior for padding; titanium face masks covered with a thermoplastic powder coating; and metal for snaps to connect rubber chin straps.
As we all know, there are some viciously powerful collisions in American football. To think the earliest players wore no protection on their heads can make you shake your head in bewilderment.
The helmet protects a player’s skull, brain, and upper spinal cord. As such, it is the single most important piece of equipment for gridiron warriors.
Let’s take a deep dive into these helmets, what they are made of, and a little history about the progression of styles with the football helmet.
First, let us resolve a matter we get asked about often. Football helmets can have small parts made of hard metal, like snaps, or the face masks under the soft coating. However, metal is not a prominent material in the manufacture of these helmets.
Metals are just too heavy, or not strong enough (like aluminum). Modern technologies have allowed for the manufacture of football helmets with outer shells made of futuristic polymers that are just as hard and difficult to break as metals ~ but weigh a lot less.
While its official name indicates science all the way, when you get right down to it, polycarbonate is a type of plastic. It is known to be very resistant to hard impacts, and in its raw form is clear.
It is most commonly used for things we don’t want to break, like refillable water bottles, sippy cups, baby bottles, and many varieties of food and drink containers
It is also used in compact discs, plastic dinnerware, and in eyeglass lenses. Think about what is most important about all these items. They do not break easily!
In the engineering world, polycarbonates have a reputation for being extremely tough. Think about how hard and often a baby throws or drops those bottles! (Can you imagine the days when they were actually made of glass?!).
The “molded” part means a mold is created in the shape of the football helmet outer shells; and then melted plastic pellets are injected inside to make the final product.
Polyurethane or Nitrile Foam on Insides of Football Helmets
Inside football helmets are pads, foams, or air-filled pockets that protect the skull and brain from the jolt of impacts that happen in football regularly in tackling or collisions.
These are the packaging materials of modern football helmets, and they are made of polyurethane, or what is called nitrile foam.
Polyurethane means a group of plastics that are used to make a great variety of items. As opposed to the rigid-hard polycarbonate, polyurethane can be created from a mix of materials, with the end result being a relatively firm foam, a padding soft to the touch, or somewhere in between.
Kitchen sponges are made of polyurethane. Over two-thirds of the polyurethane produced is made into foams, like those found inside sports helmets. They are very durable, which is important considering all the moisture these pads sustain from sweat, rain, or melted snow.
Perhaps most importantly, polyurethane foam can be designed to seem fairly hard if you press it, but depending on its design it will give. Yet, no matter how hard these foam pieces are at the start, they bounce back to the original form.
Adults who played football (or even baseball) as youths will remember what happened to the foam over the ears over time. They flattened like pancakes, got really hard, and stayed that way. That is no longer the case with modern football helmets.
Sometimes called PVC closed cell rubber foam, nitrile foam is used inside football helmets for several reasons. It’s a blend of polymers specially formulated to be soft and flexible.
It also has a special quality where it pushes out moisture, and also retains its shape no matter how hot or cold it gets. It naturally has antimicrobial resistance, making it helpful in preventing bacteria and mold inside helmets. Keeping the interiors of football helmets clean is imperative both for odors and durability of the materials inside.
Fans new to football (or even non-fans) see those wiry bars covering players’ faces and wonder what all the fuss is. Football face masks evolved a lot over time, but in the beginning they were invented because players got tired of broken noses, lost teeth, and other injuries to the face.
Once the helmet was invented, giving players a little more confidence in crashing into things at full speed, it was inevitable that something else would come to protect the face. The collisions just became too fierce.
Original face masks were a single bar bending over the mouth and jaw area, connected to the helmet at or below the ears. They were made of plastic, or later, whatever top-quality metal was available at the time. Early metal face masks were quite heavy.
Today’s face masks have at least 2 bars (by rule in the National Football League, killing the old single-bar style of kickers and punters, and Joe Theismann); most in fact are multi-barred.
Those bars are usually made of titanium, the strongest type of material that also remains very light. Perfect for those bars in front of the eyes, where every ounce of weight matters for players to maintain stamina over long and grueling games.
Face masks are not just painted team colors. They are covered with Polyarmor G17, which is a thermoplastic powder coating that actually resists impact, contributing to the helmet’s overall ability to cushion blows.
When helmets were first introduced in football, they came with no face masks. Helmets were essentially leather ear protectors. From there they evolved to the big round globes atop players’ noggins.
The first player to try a protective headpiece playing football was George Barclay in 1869. He was a halfback for Lafayette College halfback who began wearing earpieces and straps to protect his ears.
It is unknown who invented the actual first helmet for football, but we do know leather helmets started becoming mainstream by the end of the 1800s. By the 1920s, helmet use in football was widespread.
In the mid-1940s, leather helmets were required in the NFL. It wasn’t until 1949 that the NFL officially adopted the plastic helmet, ending the leather helmet era.
A clear panel of thin polycarbonate began showing up in players’ face masks in the 1990s, mainly to protect their eyes from poking fingers during tackles or while blocking. These visors are made of the same material as the exterior shell of helmets, so you know they are strong.
Early on, some players preferred shaded, clouded, or mirrored visors, to hide their eyes from defenders ~ and therefore their intentions on moves. You have to look where you’re going to run, and savvy defensive players will look to the eyes for hints.
However, due to rising concerns about concussions, the NFL banned tinted visors. Now they all are clear, in case a player’s eyes must be inspected by medical staff on the field after a hard hit.
So-called eyeshields look totally clear, but many are actually covered by thin clear wraps, to prevent scratching and preserve the ability to see clearly through them. Also, some wraps come with protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV rays) and infrared rays (IR rays), meaning they protect from sunshine even without shading or tint.
Originally basic strips of leather, modern chin straps are made of rubber or flexible plastics, often with padding designed at the chin for further jawbone protection.
Football helmets have the “male” portion of snaps embedded onto them, near or below the ear hole. Chin straps have the female portion at either end, for snapping securely onto the helmet snaps.
While the helmet is the standard protection item for the head area of football players, in recent years some have chosen to add just a little more safety under those helmet pads.
These are basically do-rag shaped, thin layers that wrap over the head before the helmet is put on. These are light in weight and very breathable to let heat escape from the inside, but use high-tech modern materials to provide extra protection from extreme impacts.
Players who make tackles after running starts are most likely to consider additional head protection. Football helmets for linemen or helmets for wide receivers can be more important for safety than those for, say, kickers.
Head protection needs differ by age, because young brains are still developing. Parents might take the time needed to research about the best youth helmets for football and do so before every season as more and more technologies are incorporated into helmets.
What’s the best football helmet for 10-year-old players, for instance, can differ greatly from the needs for players at the high school level and above.
Question: Who invented the plastic football helmet?
Answer: John T. Riddell created the first plastic helmets, introduced to the game in 1939. He was the founder of the sporting goods company that still bears his name, which still produces a great percent of all football helmets.
Q.: When was the last time an NFL player could choose to not wear a helmet?
A.: Helmets were not made mandatory in the NFL until 1943. So some players wore no helmet even though others were wearing the hard plastic ones!