The Long History of Football's Short Pants
The folks at College Football Officiating announced that a point of emphasis for the 2021 season will be to ensure players' pants and pads cover their knees. With football players increasingly preferring short over traditional-length pants, some may think the short pants thing is new, but there is little new under football's sun.
Coaches and players regularly borrow from their predecessors. Some of today's play concepts arise directly from the Single-Wing offense that dates to the 1910s. Likewise, elements of today's game are similar to those of the past because similar conditions existed then and now, and folks during each period developed similar solutions independently. The latter is the case with high-rise football pants, which have been around for a century, if not longer. So, let's review some historical factors that drove football pant design and contributed to their periodic shortening.
Today's gridiron football began as rugby before meandering off. Like rugby players of the time, early football players wore light flannel knickers. When football transitioned from the open, end-run rugby style to the mass up-the-middle game in the late 1880s, players hit the ground and one another more often, leading them to pad themselves. Amos Alonzo Stagg, for example, played at Yale from 1885 to 1889 and protected himself by strapping sponges to his knees. Others used similar homemade solutions until sporting goods manufacturers developed padded football pants
Football pants in the 1890s were made of canvas or moleskin; that is, cotton fabrics with little elasticity, resulting in bagginess. The pants were quilted in front with a uniform layer of horsehair or felt padding, giving the pants excess padding in some areas and too little in others. By the turn of the century, pants had more padding in the knees and bamboo or reeds sewn into the thighs for mechanical protection. Despite the increased knee protection, "water on the knee" was a common injury.
Changes in football's rules after 1905 pushed the game toward a more open style emphasizing speed, leading many to shed equipment to minimize weight. Some teams transitioned from pads sewn into the pants to those with interior pockets and inserted pads, making it easier for players to skip inserting the pads. Those wanting to protect their knees inserted the knee pads, taped rubber rings to their knees, or increasingly gave up on pants being a solution and wore separate knee pads, like those worn by basketball players. It was the latter option that opened the door to short football pants.
Once players began wearing separate knee pads rather than inserts, some asked why their pants covered their knees. Shorts and knee pads had long worked for hockey and Canadian rugby players, so it is unsurprising that a few of the first teams to wear short football pants were in the Northeast. Frank Kavanaugh's 1924 Boston College team dressed its backs in shorts and knee pads. Dartmouth did the same with their backs and ends in 1927, followed by Elmer Layden with his Duquesne teams in 1929 and 1930.
Some readers might find the Boston College photograph unconvincing; others doubt the Canadian influence due to a few Rice players wearing short pants during the 1924 season. Newspapers of the time tell us the idea arose with freshmen coach John Nicholson rather than head coach John Heisman, but the image below clearly shows a Rice ball carrier in short-grained Rice togs rather than the usual long-grained pants.
Also in the South, Oklahoma brought in a new head coach in 1932, Lewie Hardage, who numbered among the fastest backs in the South during his playing days at Auburn and Vanderbilt. Hardage geared his Okie team for a speed-oriented, passing offense and wanted his players unencumbered by heavy equipment, including pants that bound at the knees, so he dressed his team -linemen included- in shorts with knee pads. Navy planned to do the same, though available images suggest they never wore their pants at half-mast in games.
The 1930s was also when the first systematic studies of football injuries took place. Those studies supported the long-held belief that knee pads protected the wearers and the heads and bodies of others in the game. This led rule makers in 1939 to require knee pads at least one-half inch thick.
The next team to rise to new heights was the 1948 Missouri Tigers, coached by the legendary Don Faurot. Like Navy, it is not clear that Mizzou wore their shorts in a game, but their publicity and yearbook photos clearly show the Tigers wearing shorts. They also tested jerseys that did not cover their midriffs, a style that became popular twenty years later.
Since then, short pants have periodically popped up on football fields. Specialist kickers started going knee pad-less in the 1960s, the NFL fined players who were a few inches short in the 1970s and then came Chad Johnson, who earned a few fines in his day. The 2010s and 2020s have seen a boom in impermissible pants. Perhaps the 2021 point of emphasis will bring a return to pants normalcy, but it will be a month or two before we know the end of this short story.
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