University of Colorado football coach Gary Barnett, upset over his team’s 0-4 record, pulled an interesting stunt last month: He removed the school’s buffalo logo from the team’s headgear, leaving his players with unadorned gold helmets. Barnett intended the move as a wake-up call, but for Uni Watch it serves as a handy cue to review the history of helmet embellishments.
The first football helmets, which appeared in the early 1900s, were made of leather. Although some teams painted their lids, solid colors were the norm until 1948, when Los Angeles Rams halfback Fred Gehrke—a former art student—painted ram horns on his team’s helmets. Like all creative pioneers, Gehrke faced his share of challenges, the biggest of which was that the paint kept chipping off during games, necessitating weekly touch-ups. But this problem was solved the following season when the NFL legalized plastic helmets, allowing the design to be baked into the headgear itself (and clearing the way for the avalanche of officially licensed helmet desk lamps, helmet ice buckets, helmet telephones, and helmet dip bowls that have followed).
Although plastics opened the door for widespread use of helmet emblems, many teams were hesitant—a decade after Gehrke painted his first horns, the Giants, Redskins, 49ers, Steelers, Lions, Browns, and Bears still had logo-less helmets. Nowadays, of course, Cleveland is the only NFL team with a solid-color helmet (much to the frustration of CBS, Fox, and ESPN, who’ve never figured out how to show a stylized on-screen graphic of a logo that doesn’t exist), although quite a few college teams—most notably Penn State and Notre Dame—have continued to hold out.
As for Colorado, ESPN.com stepped on Uni Watch’s turf by jokingly proposing that Barnett could have made his point more effectively by introducing an alternate logo—an upside-down buffalo, say, or a buffalo with one of those red circle-slash symbols stamped across it. Uni Watch finds this intriguing, because it raises the possibility of alternate helmet designs—one of the few alternate-uniform concepts not yet embraced by the sports world. Is this the start of something? Stay tuned.