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Today's Tidbit... Name On Tape (NOT) On Football Helmets
Elements of football history that are part of the rules or occur in games are more accessible to research than more informal parts of football. Teams’ practice and offseason activities are also not as well documented as other parts of the game. For example, college yearbooks show team pictures, crowd shots, and game action images, but few describe and include photos of practices and offseason workouts. Likewise, newspaper reports on team practices often told which players were running with which units but generally did not detail specific drills or the gear players wore during practice.
Knowing that limitation, I tried to determine when, where, and why football players first began practicing with strips of tape on their helmets on which was written their surname.
Having your name written on tape and stuck to the front of your helmet is almost as significant a right of passage as wearing the helmet itself, yet little is written about this important ritual. Anyway, the earliest references I found for tape on the helmets are from the mid-1950s, so why did the name-on-tape (NOT) trend start then? My guesstimate is that football rosters and coaching staffs grew in the 1950s, even though two-platoon football went away for a while. As a result, coaches could not keep track of all the players on the roster as well as they had before. In addition, the 1950s witnessed the ramp-up of players wearing plastic helmets and face masks, so perhaps players were not as immediately recognizable as in the past. A third contributor may have been that coaches who had served in the military, where some units had their names on tape during boot camp, followed the same practice on the gridiron.
Some might wonder if NOT showed up in the 1950s because the beautiful athletic tape used for NOT did not appear until then, but that was not the case, as evidenced by the following ad from a 1929-1930 sporting goods catalog.
The first evidence I could find of players with NOT comes from the 1955 Iowa State yearbook, which documents the first year of Vince DeFrancesca's coaching tenure with the Cyclones in 1954. Presumably, he and his staff had trouble telling one player from another, so they put tape on the front of the players’ helmets.
Based on the picture, it is difficult to tell what, if anything, is printed on their helmets, but the modern Magic Marker did not hit the market until the early 1960s, so they may have written the names in ink or pencil.
In any event, by early 1957, the intrepid newspaper reporters in Texas told their readers that Darrell Royal, in his first practice as coach of the Longhorns, had his 100 or so steers place names in tape fore and aft. They stuck one piece of tape to the front of the helmet, and the second hung atop the backside of their pants.
From then on, NOT became the norm, and almost everyone who played had a taped label at some point in their career. Some teams now laser print names on purpose-made labels rather than using the old-school athletic tape method, but that’s silly since the old-school NOT method does not require improvement.
Postscript (March 21, 2023)
This Tidbit was linked on the Uni Watch News Ticker this morning, and an astute reader, ChrisH, linked a series of New York Giants images from the 1930s and 1940s showing NOT on their leather helmets. They used NOT despite the small rosters of the era. So, forget all that stuff about WWII training camps and enjoy a few Giants’ images until someone finds an earlier example of NOT.
Postscript (May 28, 2023)
Here’s another example I came across in NYU’s 1939 yearbook. Though it looks like the name were applied directly on the helmets rather than on tape, they likely served the same purpose.
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