How the Forward Pass Changed the Color of Football Helmets
Teams did not begin painting their helmets to look good; they did so to become more effective forward passers. Likewise, hidden ball tricks and night games spurred later changes in helmet colors and markings for reasons that no longer apply in today's game.
As most fans know, football derived from rugby, and since rugby players did not wear headgear, football players did not either. As football evolved into the smashmouth style of the 1890s, its players began wearing headgear similar to that worn by wrestlers today. The headgear protected players' ears and little else. Football's leather headgear gained additional padding after the turn of the century but remained a far cry from the modern helmet. Lacking a protective outer shell, the headgear of the early 1900s offered the same protection you might receive by tying a baseball glove to the top of your head.
Early helmets were various shades of brown or black, so they all looked more or less alike, as did many team uniforms. Teams did not yet wear home and away jerseys (read the story of their emergence here), and opponents often shared team colors, so it was difficult to tell friend from foe. This problem became acute in 1912 when football liberalized its passing rules and teams began passing more often. Tufts' head coach, Charles Whalen, helped his passers distinguish teammates from opponents in 1914 by painting the Jumbos' headgear white. Oregon State did the same that year, as seen in the image of their game at Michigan State the following year.
Purdue was the Big Nine trendsetter when they switched to white helmets in 1919. Tennessee did the same in the early 1920s, and teams such as Illinois, Brown, and Williams followed suit. By all accounts, they did so to help their passers spot teammates more easily.
Besides painting helmets to distinguish teammates from opponents, teams also painted their helmets due to new rules preventing teams from wearing gear the same color as the ball. Carlisle was the team best known for various hidden ball tricks. One trick involved stuffing the ball under the jersey. Another came by snapping the brown ball to one member of the backfield while his backfield mates pulled off their brown helmets, tucked them under their arms, and ran in various directions.
The challenge of teams wearing gear the same color as the ball took a turn when teams began playing night games in the 1920s. The poorly lit stadiums led to the use of white footballs, providing an advantage to teams wearing white helmets or jerseys that were beginning to come into fashion.
The combination of brown balls with brown gear and white balls with white gear led the NCAA in 1930 to prohibit teams from wearing elbow pads, jerseys, and helmets in the same color as the ball. More specifically, helmets in those colors needed "at least two stripes of markedly contrasting color at least two inches in width, and that the solid color of such jerseys (or attachments) be definitely broken up by stripes or numbers of markedly contrasting color."
A third major reason for painting helmets in particular colors, and the primary reason for this article, was to distinguish eligible from ineligible receivers. That may seem like a silly move today, but football was a different game 100+ years ago. Today, football teams wear home and away jerseys, ineligible receivers wear boring numbers between 50 and 79, and ineligible receivers cannot cross the line of scrimmage on passes thrown downfield until the receiver touches the ball. But none of that was true until 1939, when the NCAA first required numbering by position, and ineligible receivers had to remain behind the line of scrimmage until the ball was touched downfield. The home-and-away jersey system did not fully bloom until well into the 1950s.
So, let's back up to the time when the forward pass became legal in 1906. Despite most teams using the forward pass sparingly or not at all, Carlisle's coach, Bemus Pierce, recognized an opportunity. Under the rules of the day, an incomplete pass or one that touched an ineligible receiver on the fly resulted in a turnover, so Pierce increased the chances his passers threw only to eligible receivers by having them paint their leather headgear red.
Carlisle appears to have been alone in the differential coloring of their headgear until a surge came in the 1920s and early 1930s. Eligible receivers wore helmets of distinct colors -some painted only the backs of the helmet- with the idea being picked up here and there over the next few decades. The NFL legalized the practice in 1948 before doing away with it in 1973. But color-coded helmets were carried on in prep and college circles. An excellent illustration of the concept comes from St. Mark's School of Texas, whose linemen in the early 1950s wore purple helmets with gold stripes while the eligible receivers wore gold helmets with purple stripes. (The image at the top of the page shows the 1951 starting lineup for St. Mark's School of Texas wearing helmets colored based on their pass eligibility.)
Lest the reader thinks only oddball coaches used different colored helmets by position, prominent coaches did so as well. Among them was Wayne Hardin, who likely outfitted his eligible receivers in the most outlandish helmet color, though he did so for only one game. Hardin was Navy's head coach when both Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy. Hardin had his eligible receivers wear bright orange helmets in practice to instill confidence in his quarterback's ability to spot receivers before the 1961 Army-Navy game. Navy warmed up with their regular helmets, but the backs and ends exited the locker room for the game wearing day-glow orange helmets. Navy won 13-7 for the third of their five-game win streak versus Army under Hardin, making President Kennedy a happy boy when he left the stadium that day.
Then there was that guy named Bear Bryant. Bryant put white helmets on his receivers when they played Mississippi State or other teams with helmets similar in hue to Alabama's crimson.
Ray Perkins, who passed away this week, played for the Bear at Alabama and wanted to revive the eligible receiver helmet coloring when he took the reins in Tuscaloosa in 1983. By then, NCAA rules had changed, and all team members had to wear helmets of the same color. That led Perkins to send his entire team on the field wearing white helmets whenever they played Mississippi State.
Of course, helmet colors and decorations now exist in a college football world gone mad, with variations worn for purely aesthetic reasons. Bama is old school, wearing the same helmet color and design game after game. They are also among the few with player numbers on their helmets, a practice adopted in the latter half of the 1950s to aid fans watching games on the small television screens of the time.
Still, while the coloring of helmets is now driven by fashion more than function, it is worth recognizing that the original headgear painters did so to gain a competitive advantage, not to look pretty.
If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to my newsletter or check out my books.