What Do the Stickers on Football Helmets Mean?

What Do the Stickers on Football Helmets Mean?

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People who become fans of football soon notice small details on all the uniforms. The big helmet atop every player’s head attracts the eyes, and many fans are left to wonder about all the logos and stickers adhered to them.

On football helmets, besides team logos and center stripes, some college and high school teams let players have performance-related stickers on their helmets. Players can be rewarded stickers for touchdowns, field goals, interceptions, quarterback sacks, or other accomplishments. Stickers also can represent team achievements.

Awarding of stickers is not limited to players who score points or carry the ball. Defensive players can gain stickers for tackles, while even players who rarely get on the field can be rewarded with stickers if their involvement somehow assisted a winning effort.

It depends on how each particular team approves the distribution of stickers. Often it is up to a team captain (or captains), a vote of teams, or by coaches. After each game, particularly post-victories, more decals are distributed.

A majority of football teams choose to skip the practice; and there are no football game rules governing rewards stickers on helmets.

Famous teams that use helmet stickers are Ohio State University, Florida State University, and the University of Michigan.

Genesis of Reward Decals on Football Helmets

The question of who first invented what are called reward decals, or pride stickers, is disputed. Here are the favored inventors to date:

  • Ernie Briggs, an athletic trainer at Ohio State under famed coach Woody Hayes, started sticking decals on helmets in 1967.
  • Jim Young, assistant coach at Miami University, introduced decals in 1965.
  • Gene Stauber, then freshman coach at Nebraska from 1955 to 1957, introduced the decals concept to head coach Pete Elliott. For some this makes sense, because as an assistant coach for the University of Illinois in the 1960s, hit teams routinely used the decals.
  • Defensive backs coach Dewey King of Rutgers University awarded award decals for helmets in 1961. (However, there weren’t many, as they were given out only for interceptions!)

It is said that the concept of stickers came from U.S. fighter pilots who would mark airplanes with stickers for successful missions or kills.

How many college football teams put stickers on their helmets?

Through the 2022 season, 13 top-level NCAA football teams continued to use helmet stickers:

  • Clemson (tiger paw print)
  • Florida State (tomahawk only after victories)
  • Michigan (wolverine, with players’ personal achievements and area codes)
  • Ohio State (buckeye tree leaf)
  • Eastern Michigan (feather)
  • Florida International University (FIU) (gold panther paw)
  • North Carolina (tar heel, but only on traditional blue helmets)
  • Pittsburgh (panther head)
  • Stanford (ax blade)
  • University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) (spade)
  • University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP) (pick ax)
  • Northern Illinois University (bone/Huskie logo)
  • Louisiana Lafayette (fleur de lis)

Many college football teams used to have stickers on helmets but have since stopped the practice.

The National Football League (NFL) has a strict uniform policy that forbids such decals on player helmets, other than team logos, and some other special stickers such as a green sticker in the back, or national flags.

Reward Stickers in Other Sports

Perhaps the best example of reward decals in other sports is the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, whose team captain, Willie Stargell, distributed yellow or black stars for players to have sewn onto ball caps. (The Pirates alternated between yellow and black hats).

Some top players, like Dave Parker, had stars stretching from the team “P” in the front-middle, all the way to the back in a line. During the team’s famous 1979 World Series championship run, the stars were very visible atop the heads of almost every starting player.

Football Helmet Stickers Pros & Cons


  • Incentivizes players to achieve
  • Builds team spirit
  • Fosters competition among players
  • Intimidate the opposition
  • Can look cool


  • Too many stickers tell opponents which players are stars to target
  • Can make helmet look cluttered or unbalanced
  • Run out of space on helmet
  • Constantly have to replace damaged stickers as season progresses

Other Stickers on Football Helmets

Aside from reward stickers, of course there are other decals on football helmets. Namely, the team logo.

In the National Football League, all teams have a logo on either side of the helmet, except the Pittsburgh Steelers on one side only, and the Cleveland Browns which never adopted a logo.

Many teams also have a stripe from the middle of the top of the face mask, running straight back either all the way to the back, or partially.

While the NFL does not allow any other type of decals on the main portion of the helmet, the league does use a few small stickers for the very back center of the helmet, usually to identify players with specific responsibilities.

For instance, a green dot on the back tells referees which single member of the team has contact with the coaching staff between plays.

The green sticker is used for both sides of the ball, to indicate which helmet is equipped with a speaker connecting the player with the coaching staff. These players relay play calls from the sidelines to the players on the field.

Only a single green-stickered helmet is allowed on either side of the ball. On offense, it is almost always on the quarterback’s helmet. On defense it’s usually a captain, often a linebacker who is in the center of everything.

Damaged Decals on Football Helmets

Football helmets clang into each other often, sometimes with terrific force. Due to this, sometimes the team logo decal, stripe, or reward stickers get smeared, scratched, lost, or otherwise damaged.

This means after every game, team personnel clean each helmet carefully, and replace lost or damaged decals.

Football teams of all levels take pride in the appearance of their helmets and uniforms. It attracts the eyes of potential new fans, and generates pride in existing fans.

You will never see helmets at the beginning of college or pro football games with damaged or missing logos or decals. It’s a public relations image thing to start games looking new and shiny.

Often there also is an American flag on the back of football helmets. Also in the NFL, certain players are allowed to place a sticker on the back of the helmet denoting a league wide award.

An example is the player honored with the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, bestowed to a player with significant accomplishments off the field as well as on it. This player gets to wear a sticker denoting the award for the entire last season.

Other Colleges Using Reward Decals on Football Helmets

Stickers are used on the helmets of colleges below the Division 1 level also, including as of the 2022 season:

Alabama A&M, Butler, Florida A&M, Fordham University, Illinois State, New Hampshire, North Carolina A&T, Weber State, and Youngstown State.

How Stickers are Placed on Football Helmets

Almost always, reward stickers in football are all placed on a single side of the helmet ~ until that side is filled up. New fans can notice this phenomenon later in college seasons, when a few players for teams like Ohio State or Florida State have helmets that look lopsided.

Where the stickers are placed depends on rules, from teams or leagues. Much of the time, new reward decals are placed front and center, on a side of the front-to-back center line.

This makes sense, because most recipients consider it an honor to achieve them, and want everyone to see the decals ~ including opponents. So, front and center, right up top.

From there players usually have them set in a line, either front to back, or side to side, one row or column at a time.

All football helmets from the high school level and up (and in almost all youth leagues for that matter) have a team logo emblem set on helmets. At the lower levels, they are high-quality decals that sometimes need to be replaced due to in-game damage.

Those who have never worn a football helmet in game play would probably be surprised at the ferocity in which the protective items crash into each other. While the modern plastics hold true after sustained poundings, the helmets do get quite scratched and smudged, especially in the front over the forehead.

This is because football defenders are taught to “lead with the forehead” (or face mask) when tackling, to avoid the dangerous practice of hitting targets with the very top of the helmet. This latter practice leaves the neck prone to serious injury.

So due to the face-first tackling practice, the fronts of football helmets can get very scratched up during game play, especially for players making a lot of tackles after running starts, like linebackers and safeties.

Some lower-level schools just let players continue on with massively scarred helmets. Most players think of it as a badge of honor, proof of how effectively (and viciously) they play the game.

The concept for decorating football helmets was born in 1948 when Los Angeles Rams running back Fred Gehrke painted white ram horns on his leather helmet. The concept was slow to catch on with other players and teams.

It was the popularity of television, and its adoption of football as a visually attractive product to broadcast, that led to logos on every NFL helmet (except the Browns).

While a handful of teams chose to add helmet logos by the early 1960s, it was the NFL’s first national TV contract (worth $4.7 million annually) in 1962 that made helmet logos league-wide.

By that point television was so popular, NFL teams were obliged to add very visible helmet logos so fans could tell teams apart during an era where broadcasts were only in black and white.

Related Questions

Question: What are strange reasons to award a helmet sticker?

Answer: It could be anything, like deflecting a pass, or blocking a kick. Whichever plays were deemed key to a team’s success. Sometimes even special teams players can get stickers, such as a kicker who was ordered to not let an opposing returner touch the ball; or a punter who drops all kicks within the 20 yard line.

Q.: Do high school football teams use reward stickers on helmets?

A.: Yes, depending on the school and desires of the players.

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