With all the close attention the National Football League is finally giving to the problem of player concussions, it’s startling to remember that there once was a time in the not-so-distant past when protective headgear was considered almost effeminate attire by some gridders. In 1955, one knuckle-dragging NFL linebacker complained to a national magazine: “They all wear thick helmets and facemasks today. It’s silly to punch them. My [style] is to kick their head off.”
When football first came along in the latter part of the 19th century, long hair was considered an effective-enough shock absorber for any blow to the noggin. Gruesome head and face injuries started to convince some players and coaches that broken honkers and cauliflower ears didn’t necessarily need to be the price of playing a fun but rugged game. The first rudimentary helmets appeared in the late 1800s. These were nothing but slabs of leather sewn together and worn as a skullcap. Some players disdained helmets but wore rubber nose guards, which were held in place by a strap.
Through the 1920s, roughly half of all professional players continued to take the field without any kind of head or face protection. But attitudes were changing. By the 1930s the familiar “leatherhead” look generally associated with old-time football largely prevailed. Plastic helmets, considered safer than leather, were introduced in 1939. Plastic helmets became the norm in the NFL by the 1950s, though the Lions’ 300-pound middle guard, Les Bingaman, and the entire Chicago Bears team were among those holdouts who continued wearing leather helmets during the decade. Headgear, originally close fitting, was improved to allow the shock of a hit to be dissipated through suspension and padding rather than transferred directly to the brain.
The NFL made helmets mandatory in 1943 (four years after college football), but the rule was grandfathered in to allow for old-school types to continue to play with their hair blowing in the wind. The last bareheaded player was Dick Plasman, who played for both the Chicago Bears and Cardinals in a career that stretched from 1937 through 1947, with time out for World War II. The tough end once dove head-first for a pass and plowed into the brick wall at Wrigley Field, knocking him cold and leaving him with a permanent dent in his cranium. “He had a piece of cement for a head,” a player said of Plasman.
Up through the mid-1950s, nearly all helmets were open-face. Most players only wore a mask temporarily, when they were recovering from a broken nose or jaw or some other facial injury. These were makeshift masks made of wire wrapped with layers of tape and leather. In 1955, Riddell—the company that had pioneered the use of plastic helmets—worked with Cleveland coach Paul Brown to create a single-bar facemask that was made of rubber and plastic.
Beginning in 1955, all NFL players were required to wear a facemask, though individuals could ask for special permission from the commissioner to play without one. The last pros to regularly play with an open-face helmet were Tommy McDonald, a feisty little end who concluded his 12-year Hall-of-Fame career with Cleveland in 1969, and defensive tackle Jess Richardson, who quit playing for the Boston Patriots in 1964. Remarkably, Richardson never lost a single tooth in a dozen pro seasons (though he did have his nose broken at least 10 times).
The last Lion to regularly play without a face mask was Bobby Layne, who left Detroit early in the 1958 season and continued to wear an open-face helmet with Pittsburgh until his retirement in 1962. Layne, like Richardson, also disdained thigh pads.
Layne, McDonald, and Richardson were every-down kind of players. Some starters who doubled as punters, kickers, and holders had a second helmet they used strictly for special teams. There are game-action photographs of Yale Lary and Pat Studstill wearing an open-face helmet while punting, and the Lions’ 1969 highlight film shows Wayne Rasmussen holding for placekicks without a facemask or even a chinstrap. The reason, of course, was increased visibility: even a single bar across the face might obscure a player’s vision at a critical moment.
Even then, the rewards didn’t always warrant the risk. Take the case of Lions rookie kicker Garo Yepremian in 1966. The little immigrant from Cyprus knew nothing about the game and had little appreciation for just how violent it could be. (Alex Karras famously quoted him as shrieking “I keek a touchdown!”) A vicious hit by Green Bay’s Ray Nitschke was enough to convince the clueless kicker to switch over to a single bar. “I would wake up every morning with blood in my mouth,” Yepremian explained. “I learned my lesson.”