When did helmets become compulsory in the National Football League (NFL)?

The sport of American, or gridiron, football originated at universities in the United States and Canada in the late nineteenth century. Protective headgear, albeit rudimentary, and optional, in the early days, has been a feature of the sport more or less ever since.

The first ‘helmets’ were open-faced skull caps, made from a soft material, such as leather or moleskin and, consequently, offered little or no protection against facial injuries. In the Twenties and Thirties, hardened leather helmets with additional padding became on option but, even so, a face bar or face mask would not be introduced until decades later, long after the advent of plastic helmets.

The first plastic football helmet, complete with a suspension system designed to withstand repeated hits, was invented by John T. Riddel in 1939. The introduction of the plastic helmet was hampered (i) by the scarcity of raw materials during World War II and (ii) by a production fault that led them to be banned by the NFL. However, the latter problem was quickly rectified, such that, by the end of the Forties, strong, durable plastic helmets were a matter of course in the NFL.

The National Football League (NFL) was founded in 1920, as the American Professional Football Association, but helmets – which became compulsory in college football in 1939 – remained optional until 1943. However, the last player to play without a helmet was Chicago Bears’ running back Herbert ‘Dick’ Plasman; he did so in the 1940 NFL Championship Game against the Washington Redskins on December 8, 1940, which the Bears won 73-0. Apparently, Plasman felt more comfortable playing bare-headed, although he was later found to have a deep indentation in his left temple, caused by running into the outfield wall at Wrigley Field.

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