Shoulder pads. Knee pads. Hip pads. Thigh pads. Before today’s football player steps onto the field, he must endure the seemingly cumbersome task of suiting up. Football players wear more protective gear than athletes in most sports. However, players wore no pads at all when they first took the field in the 1880s. As author Robert W. Peterson wrote in his eBook, “Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football,” players wore no helmets or pads at all. Over the next century, though, football pads grew to play an important role in ensuring player safety.
Some historians credit L.P. Smock with creating shoulder pads. The Princeton student actually created tight-fitting jackets featuring suitcase-style handles on the shoulders. Made from leather, they helped to protect the shoulder blade during contact, and the handles allowed players to tug and pull their teammates. In the 1920s, football players began to wear shoulder pads which somewhat resemble those worn in the modern game. Made from felt wool and leather, they were connected in the mid-chest by leather stitching. Players raised the pads over their heads and pulled them down much like pulling on a T-shirt. The pads have continued to evolve over the decades, leading to today's lighter, less restrictive materials. According to a January 2014 New York Times article, modern shoulder pads are 50 percent lighter than those worn in the 1980s.
Before 1900, pants were made from wool or canvas and featured sewn-in pads for the thigh and knee. Modern-day leg pads slide into pockets located on the inside of football pants. The material used for the pads has changed from leather to foam rubber and then to rubber reinforced with plastic. Today’s leg pads feature synthetic foam and neoprene, which is softer and allows for easier movement. In 2013, the National Football League mandated that all players wear thigh and knee pads. The rule went into effect for the 2014 season. The decision brought criticism from players who feel that the pads restrict their mobility.
Frank N. Howard invented the neck roll in 1977. This cushioned material was affixed to the back of helmets to provide protection for players’ spines by keeping the head and neck in its proper position. Linebackers and safeties, who ordinarily lead their teams in tackles, run the highest risk of neck injuries, and they tend to wear neck rolls more often than other players.
Although the NFL requires shoulder pads, knee pads and thigh pads, the league gives players some leeway in terms of the size of the pads they wear. Wide receivers, defensive backs and defensive linemen prefer smaller, lighter shoulder pads. The smaller pads make it easier to catch the football and give opposing tacklers less to grab onto. Specialized pads have helped players avoid injuries while allowing others to play through them.
- Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football: Robert W. Peterson
- NFL Evolution: Health and Safety
- The Tennessean: Evolution of the Football Helmet
- Bleacher Report: The Evolution of Football Equipment
- U.S. Patent Office: Neck Roll for Helmet
- ESPN: NFL: Thigh, Knee Pads Mandatory
- New York Times: Shoulder Pads Slim Down in Faster, Sleeker N.F.L.
- Photo Credit 33ft/iStock/Getty Images
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