October 5, 2012
The “pigskin” is not made of pig skin but is, in fact, made from cowhide. Of course, popular speculation has it that the leather exterior of the football was once made from the tanned skin of a pig, but it’s more likely that the football was made from a pig’s bladder. We may never know. Equally mysterious is the shape of the ball. If the sport evolved from soccer and rugby, how and when did the football gain its distinct shape – technically known as a prolate spheroid? Well, it turns out that the football was never truly designed, it just sort of happened. According to Henry Duffield, a man who witnessed a game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, largely considered to be the first intercollegiate game:
“The ball was not an oval but was supposed to be completely round. It never was, though — it was too hard to blow up right. The game was stopped several times that day while the teams called for a little key from the sidelines. They used it to unlock the small nozzle which was tucked into the ball, and then took turns blowing it up. The last man generally got tired and they put it back in play somewhat lopsided.”
So according to that story, the football that bounces erratically all over a field and can fly through air in a perfect spiral is not, in fact, the product of high design. At least not initially. Rather, it’s the result of a leaky sphere and some lazy inflaters. Initially, football was a very different game – or perhaps I should say games. There were kicking games and running games, but as those two games began to merge together, as rules began to standardize, the ball began to slightly stretch out in order to accommodate more types of use. The unique shape of the ball was somewhat formalized in the early 20th century and that form was exploited to great success when the forward pass was introduced to football in 1906.
As the game continued to change, the ball evolved to accommodate new rules and new plays. Most notably, in the 1930s, it became longer and slimmer as the forward pass became a more dominant–and more encouraged–part of the game. Another change came in 1956 when the white balls traditionally used in night games were replaced with a standard daytime football circled by two white stripes. Though advancements in stadium lighting have made night balls unnecessary, NCAA games still use the white-striped ball.
In 1941, the official football used by the NFL was nicknamed “The Duke,” after the Wellington Mara, whose father named him after the Duke of Wellington. That name played a key role in establishing the relationship between the NFL and Wilson Sporting Goods, the company that has for more than 70 years produced the offical football of the NFL. “The Duke” was in play until 1969 when professional football reorganized. In 2006, National Football League owners decided to return the name of the official game ball to “The Duke” in honor of Wellington Mara’s passing the previous year.
Today, in order to be used in a National Football League game, a football must meet the following requirements: It shall consist of a urethane bladder inflated to 12.5 to 13.5 pounds and enclosed in a pebble grained, tan leather outer shell designed to provide a good grip – even in the rain. The ball must be 11-11.25 inches long, have a long circumference between 28- 28.5 inches, a short circumference between 21-21.25 inches; and it must weigh 14 to 15 ounces. The variation in the measurements is due to the fact that all NFL footballs are made by hand. Since 1955 every NFL football has been made at Wilson’s 130-person factory in Ada, Ohio, which produces up to 4,000 footballs a day.
These NFL footballs are born on the backs of Midwestern cows from Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska, which are brought to a tannery in Ada and treated with a top secret football-weather-optimizing tanning recipe. Each football is composed of four separate pieces (see above image), with a single cowhide producing ten balls. The construction of the bladder is also a secret process, with each synthetic bladder produced by one man. From pigskin to cowhide, organic bladder to synthetic rubber, the ball has changed and the game itself has evolved into a completely different animal.
October 1, 2012
In professional football, the only line of defense against head injury –other than the defensive line– is the helmet. But the earliest football helmet looked more like a padded aviator cap than the high-tech crash-tested helmet used by today’s players. There’s a reason for that.
There are a few different stories about the invention of the football helmet but the earliest and the most frequently told dates back to they Army-Navy game of 1893. Admiral Joseph Mason Reeve (“the father of carrier aviation”) had apparently been kicked and hit in the head so many times, his doctor told him that another hard impact could lead to “instant insanity.” Determined to play in the big game, Reeve went to his shoemaker and had him fashion a moleskin hat with earflaps. So it was that the helmet –I’m using the term loosely, here– was born. But the football helmet would see battle off the field as well – Reeve took the design back to the Navy and it was briefly used by paratroopers during the first World War.
In the early 1900s, soft leather skull caps appeared as optional headgear worn by few players. By the 1920s, hardened leather helmets were first worn, slightly increasing the level protection. Slightly. Perhaps more importantly, these early helmets inspire the popular vision of “old-timey” football, not to mention such films as the underrated Leatherheads, starring George Clooney and John Krasinski. But I digress.
Again, it’s worth reiterating that helmets were not mandatory. That wouldn’t happen until 1943. During the 1920s and 1930s, variations of the leather helmet appeared, but in 1939, the game changed –or at least became safer– when John T. Riddel introduced the first plastic helmet. Unfortunately, as plastics became more scarce during World War II, so did the more durable helmet. After the war, the helmets went back into production, but there was a problem with the plastic mix that cause many helmets to break into pieces. Remember that scene in Batman Begins where the cowl shatters? I imagine it was something like that.
As a result of the faulty plastic, the NFL banned the helmets. Within a year, the error had been corrected and the plastic helmet was formally re-introduced to professional football just a year later, quickly followed by the padded plastic helmet. (Note to people who get hit for a living: it’s always a good idea to add more pads.) Another important change came in 1948 when Los Angeles Rams halfback Fred Gehrke painted horns on either side of his helmet, making the rams the first professional team with a helmet emblem.
Up to this point, all the helmets were still open faced. And almost all those open faces had black eyes, bloody noses, and swollen lips. That changed in 1955 when a single face bar was added to the padded plastic helmets. And of course, with the invention of the face mask came the invention of the face-masking – banned in 1956. The single bar face mask was the invention of Paul Brown, the first coach of Cleveland’s professional football team, who came up with the prototype in order to keep starting quarterback Otto Graham in a game after he took a hard hit right to the kisser. Brown and the equipment manager quickly assembled the crossbar, patched up Graham, and sent him back on the field to win the game.
After the victory, a slightly more formal design was created and all Cleveland players were required to wear the single bar masks. Other NFL teams soon followed suit. Brown patented his design, known as the BT-5, and it went into production by Riddel, who still make the official helmet of the National Football League. By 1962, facemasks were worn by every player in the game. Former Detroit Lion Garo Yepremian was the last NFL player to play without any facemask, only adapting the crossbar in 1967. “’I would wake up every morning with blood in my mouth,’ he told ESPN. ‘I learned my lesson.’”
Though the single bar face mask was an important innovation, it was soon replaced by increasingly complex styles of face protection. In 2004, the NFL formally banned single bar helmets, but some players were grandfathered in. This exception was made exclusively for kickers, who like the single bar because what it lacked in safety, it made up for in visibility. The last single bar helmet appeared on a professional field in 2007.
During the 1960s and 70s, manufacturers developed thick foam padding that was installed in the helmets and in 1975, the full face mask appeared. Today, dozens of face mask designs are available, offering a variety of options related to protection and visibility. By the mid 1980s, the football helmet had become a complex, highly engineered piece of equipment. A typical helmet weighed three pounds, with an outer shell composed of polycarbonate over a layer of aluminum and vinyl foam on top of plastic and then a thin layer of leather. The inside of the helmets were lined with foam padding and plastic pods or an inflatable layer designed to absorb the shock of impact and create as tight a fit as possible.
In 1995 the football helmet went high-tech, when a new rule permitted quarterback to have a radio transmitter in their helmets, making it possible for a team’s coach to call in plays without the need for elaborate sideline semaphore. The use of radio receivers –or should I say radio quarterbacks–are now regulated by the NFL, but it’s up to the teams to decide what kind of system they use. This sometimes can prove to be more of a hinderance than a help, as illustrated by the San Francisco 49ers, who until this year, were known for their terrible helmet radio system that would cut off in the middle of a called play or even pick up pilot chatter from passing aircraft.
Despite the relatively recent integration of this technology, helmet radios are by no means a new development in professional football. Once again, Paul Brown proves to be an innovator. The Cleveland Browns patriarch, who has many coaching “firsts” on his record, experimented with a citizen’s band radio in his quarterback’s helmet as far back as 1956. The last great official change to the helmet came in 1998 when transparent face shields were allowed to protect players’ eyes. Tinted visors, though they may look cool, are only permitted by the league with the approval of appropriate medical documentation.
Finally, it’s impossible to talk about helmets without saying a few words about safety. Head injury is a growing concern in all sports, but especially football. Just this past summer, 2,000 NFL players joined together in a lawsuit alleging that the League failed to adequately inform players of the neurological risks –dementia, depression, reduced cognitive ability, sleeplessness, early-onset Alzheimer’s– associated with getting pounded into the dirt day after day. Surprisingly, the rule book is light on helmet specifications. While there many incredibly specific rules on intentionally striking a player with a helmet or otherwise using the helmet with any sort of malicious intent, there are no rules dictating what kind of helmet a player can wear other than the stipulation that all helmets must be approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE).
Players are free to choose their own helmets for their own reasons, be it protection, nostalgia, or even vanity. Believe it or not, vanity was even a concern back in the halcyon days of Paul Brown, whose players initially objected to the face mask mandate because they made players too anonymous. Today, helmet mandates in the NFL rule book focuses only on the chinstrap and face mask:
Helmet with chinstrap (white only) fastened and face mask attached. Face masks must not be more than 5/8-inch in diameter and must be made of rounded material; transparent materials are prohibited.
That’s it. The only official rule on helmets. The only other regulations have to do with logos and branding. While the NOCSAE conduct myriad tests on helmets, they do not simulate conditions that can result in concussion, as The New York Times recently reported. However, there are signs that this many be changing. Today’s professional helmets are primarily made by two companies: Riddel and Schutt. Both manufacturers have released helmets designed specifically to protect against concussions after research found that most concussions were caused by hit impact to the side of the head or jaw. The NFL have also taken steps to ensure players safety, such as requiring a brief examination on the sideline after head blows, but the issue remains one of the most controversial in sports.
From humble, hand-cobbled beginnings in a shoe shop to the highly engineered designs produced in the elaborate testing facility of today’s top manufacturers, the football helmet has come a long way in just over a hundred years. But so has the game. Players are faster and stronger than they ever have been and the hits just keep on coming. New materials, new designs, new technologies, and perhaps even new regulations will make sure the helmet keeps up with the game.
September 24, 2012
We’re three weeks into football season in America and since every team I root for has a losing record, I thought it might be a good time to take a break from watching games to look a little closer at the game itself, starting with the field.
The origin of American football is surprisingly complex, but here’s the abridged version: professional football was formally organized in 1920, from loosely affiliated professional organizations that evolved out of college football, which was born out of rugby, which, of course, has its origins in soccer – also known as football to everyone else in the world. While American football bears little resemblance to these earlier games, the fields are vaguely similar large, green rectangles that connote their shared history. However, American football is unique in that the field exists independently of the ball. That is to say, the field does not need to be a perfectly flat or consistent surface in order to accommodate the rolls or bounces of a ball. Football is a battle for territory as much as points, and so the field primarily serves as a way to measure the progress of this battle. And it also cushions tackles. Well, it mostly cushions tackles – but more on that in a minute.
Rule one, section one of the National Football League rulebook addresses all things related to the playing field. So let’s start with page one and get the basics out of the way: The field, end zones included, is a rectangle that measures 360 feet long by 160 feet wide. To put that into perspective, it’s roughly the size of one whole football field. According to official NFL rules, 30-foot deep scoring end zones bookend the field, which is demarcated by horizontal lines every five yards, with two-yard-long numbers indicating yard lines in multiples of 10 placed exactly twelve yards in from the sideline. Their font, surprisingly, isn’t officially standardized. Around the perimeter of the field, space must also be provided for stopping room, in theory giving players an area to slow down so they don’t accidentally charge into something (or someone) once they exit the field of play (unsurprisingly, it doesn’t always work). All lines and field markings must be painted white. The grass must be green. This is the basic field. It remained largely unchanged for the first 10 years of the game.
The first significant changes to the field –and to the game– came in the 1933 when two rows of hash marks were added near the center of the field at one-yard intervals. More than just aesthetic, the hash marks heralded one of professional football’s first deviations from the college game: at the end of each play, the ball would now be placed on the nearest hash mark. Prior to the rule change, all plays began where the ball was declared dead.
But what of the ground below these painted markings? The turf, the dirt, terra ludus. From its inception, football was played on grass. But, depending on the region, different stadiums use different types of grass: Kentucky Blue, Bermuda, Rye, Fescue, and so on. Of course, different types of grass result in different playing fields and practice fields, giving credence to the idea of home-field advantage as local players become accustomed to the barely perceptible variations in the ground beneath their feet.
In the 1960s, as domed fields became popular, natural grass became more incredibly expensive –if not entirely impossible– to maintain, and in 1966 an artificial playing surface was used for the first time in professional football. AstroTurf, a brand name that’s often used as generic description for artificial grass, was initially developed in the 1950s and 60s by the Chemstrand Company, a subsidiary of Monsanto, for use in more durable carpeting. During this same time, the Ford Foundation was interested in improving physical fitness programs in schools and approached Chemsand to create a versatile urban sports surface for schools. In 1964, “Chemgrass” was born. The synthetic fiber surface was re-dubbed “AstroTurf” after making its debut in 1966 in the Houston Astrodome.
Although AstroTurf was designed for both foot traction and cushioning, players claimed that the surface grabbed their cleats, making sharp cuts more difficult and, perhaps more importantly, AstroTurf was hard. Getting tackled on AstroTurf hurt – more than usual. Studies performed in the 1980s and 90s determined that playing on AstroTurf was more likely to lead to injuries. Contemporary turf alleviates many of these problems, and is much more similar to real grass.
Today, most fields using a synthetic playing surface have opted for FieldTurf, a brand first used in 2002. The new turf is made from more grass-like polymer fibers designed for durability and traction – each “row” of fibers matches the average width of a football cleat. These fibers are surrounded with a mix of high-grade rubber and sand particles to provide cushioning for players and make it easier for sharp cuts. Finally, a porous mat binds the turf to the ground and allows for draining. Not only does FieldTurf look better than the original AstroTurf, it’s safer – the rubber in-fill provides much more cushioning and the polymer “grass” doesn’t cause turf burns. Finally, because the grass is artificial it could, technically, be any color. Thankfully, the NFL mandated in 2011 that all playing fields must be green. The so-called “Boise rule” is named for Boise State’s unique blue field – aka “smurf turf.” The rationale doesn’t have anything to do with the tradition of sport, but with the ubiquitous sponsorships that seem to be plastered over every possible surface in a professional sports stadium or arena. League owners wanted to preempt any advanced marketing strategies calling for red Coca-Cola fields or blue Chase bank fields.
Perhaps one of the most visible changes to the game –and one that had the most impact on how the game is played– came with the redesign and relocation of the goal posts. Goal posts originally consisted of two separate vertical posts with a cross bar between them, and were installed on the goal line at the front of the end zone. As you might imagine, this did sometimes lead to players colliding with the goal posts (in Canada, goal posts are still located on the goal line, which still results in some nasty collisions). Today’s model, known for obvious reasons as “the slingshot” goalpost was first proposed in 1967 by Joel Rottman, a retired magazine and newspaper distributor and part-time inventor who came up with idea while eating a steak lunch and noticing the prongs on his fork. As seen in Rottman’s patent, the original design called for 10-ft uprights. The uprights were extended at the request of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who then agreed to allow their use in professional play. Within the year every NFL team was using the new slingshot uprights. In 1974 the goal posts were moved from the goal line, where they had been since the first rule changes in 1933, to the back of the end zone.
These are just a few of the more prominent changes to the game. Of course, the technical aspect of a football fields –drainage, irrigation, and maintenance– must also be considered in the design of a field. And it should be noted that stadium design has changed drastically as well, undoubtedly having an impact on players, as professional sports has become an incredibly profitable industry. Though at first glance, today’s field may not look that different from its predecessors, it didn’t spring into existence as a perfectly designed field of play. Neither did the game. Minor changes effect strategy and impact scoring. It’s taken more than 100 years for the professional football field to evolve to its current state, with every alteration, no matter how small, adding up to profoundly change the game.