NU and the
Modern Helmet


Northwestern and the
First Modern Helmet

By Larry LaTourette

Recently a Northwestern fan on the NU Football Message Board1 cited a page on the Helmet Hut website that credited Northwestern with wearing the very first modern plastic helmet.  Helmet Hut tracks football helmet history.  The page in question features an Acme Newsphoto2 image of a player in 1940 posing with the new helmet:


Helmet Hut also helpfully included an image of the back of the old photo:


Both Helmet Hut and the poster on assumed Northwestern was the team that had worn the new helmet: "[Did NU's] 40-0 win [vs. Syracuse] have anything to do Eastman Kodak's Tenite cellulosic plastics?" Helmet Hut asked in its post.

The image and the Acme description, however, left in doubt which team wore this helmet.  The player in the image is clearly not wearing a Northwestern uniform, and the helmet looks more like Syracuse's helmet at the time (orange leather, with vertical stripes) than NU's (plain black leather).  Acme's caption also did not clear up which team wore the helmet.  In fact, Eastman Kodak's involvement seemed to point to Syracuse, given the campus's proximity to Eastman's offices.

As it turns out, the player in the photo is a model, wearing a prototype, and Northwestern actually was the team that first wore a modern plastic helmet onto the football field.  An obscure industry journal, Chemical Industries, provided an image of a Northwestern player sporting the prototype before the game with Syracuse:

[Chemical Industries]

And, no, your eyes are not deceiving you: that helmet is see-through!  Here is the caption that Chemical Industries provided: "It had to come: plastics are now sported on the gridiron.  A member of the Northwestern football team adjusts a helmet molded of Tenite, a resilient plastic developed by Eastman Kodak."3, 4

The player in the Chemical Industries photo is definitely wearing an NU jersey, but he cannot be identified.

While the Tenite used for the helmet was produced by Eastman, the helmet itself was the design of John Riddell's equipment manufacturing company.  Riddell, an NU grad school alumnus and former Evanston H.S. coach, had been experimenting with the plastic for over a year.

The photo at right, taken from the Riddell Company's website, shows Riddell's first plastic prototype, which he developed in 1939. 

It does not appear, however, that any major college football team actually used the helmet in a game until the 'Cats did in 1940, an assumption backed up by the caption on the Acme Newsphoto image: "This molded helmet. . . will get its first college gridiron test when Northwestern plays Syracuse next Saturday."

It is a shame that the Wildcats did not keep the helmets see-through for their 1940 debut vs. Syracuse, which would have made Northwestern the kings of crazy helmets, a title that even Oregon would not be able to take away.

Instead, Riddell used dark purple shells.  The vertical strip of material that covered the center seam was painted black, and the front of the helmet was given a white stripe.


The new helmets did indeed make their debut at Northwestern's 1940 season opener at Syracuse, the Orangemen's homecoming game:

The debut of the modern college football helmet, NU at Syracuse, Oct. 5, 1940

The team continued to wear the Tenite helmets during the 1940 season.  George Zorich, the team's starting right tackle, added a Tenite facemask in the middle of the season, after losing a tooth during the Indiana game5.  While this was not the first facemask to be used in college football, it was among the earliest to employ plastic.  An ironic twist: many people credit Northwestern alumnus Otto Graham with having worn the very first plastic facemask, during his time with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1950s.6

Graham, with his Browns facemask
[Otto Graham Estate]

The influence of Riddell's new Tenite football helmets was wide-reaching.  As the following 1941 article from the Daily Northwestern (here given in its entirety) notes, the helmet was the inspiration for the American parachute helmet, eventually used for training in World War II.  The article also reveals that Northwestern, thanks to Riddell, was among the first college teams to use removable cleats on their shoes:

'Chute' troops
adopt same headgear
as NU grid players

Those Martian looking football headgears, which Northwestern's football team introduced last fall, have been adopted by the United States army for the use of parachute troops in training at Fort Benning, Ga.  John T. Riddell, former football coach at Evanston High School, who invented the helmets, has already supplied the troops with many of the new headgears.

The helmets are made of tough plastic called tenite.  While stronger than the former leather headgears, they are much lighter.  By employing a system of headbands, which suspend the helmet around the wearer's head, they provide greater safety and greater ventilation.  It was this latter factor which proved popular with the Wildcat players.

Helmet Is On, But Off Head

The helmets came to the attention of the army when they were placed on display in a Georgia sporting goods house.  An army parachute troop officer was attracted by the durability of the headpiece and the device that kept the helmet "off the head" of the wearer.  By making a few alterations such as shortening the ear guards and attaching leather "curtains" at the front and rear, the parachute helmet was born.

Riddell, who turned out a string of championship elevens at Evanston High School in the early '20s, has been responsible for numerous innovations in football equipment.  Early in his coaching career he began experimenting with removable, or interchangeable, football cleats.  At that time, wood cleats were rarely used for shoes.  The nails sometimes caused injuries and the shoes were rarely good for more than one season.

Inaugurated Modern Football Shoe

One year Riddell bought football shoes without cleats and equipped them with hard rubber cleats which could be screwed on and off the soles.  He brought the shoes to the attention of the Northwestern coaching staff, which adopted them, and now they are universally used.  The idea proved so profitable that in 1921 Riddell gave up coaching to manufacture football shoes.7

The team continued to use Riddell's plastic helmets through the mid-1940s.  During his time with the 'Cats, Graham only wore leather helmets in practice, and wore the iconic white-striped Tenite helmet in every game:

[NU Archives]

In the image above, Graham carries the ball at Dyche Stadium during the 1941 Fire Bell game with Illinois.  Although it is a little blurry, one can make out the ad hoc facemask that Graham is wearing on his Tenite helmet as well, 12 years before his more famous facemask with the Browns.

By the early '40s, several NFL teams were also using plastic helmets.  However, some of the teams encountered trouble with the headgear, including incidents of the helmets shattering.  Most of these teams switched briefly back to leather helmets before returning in the '50s-- for good-- to plastic shells.8

It is not known why, exactly, but NU also reverted to leather helmets in the mid-1940s.  Perhaps the school faced the same issues that hampered the NFL; it is not recorded.  The 'Cats continued to use plain black leather helmets until 1954, when NU also switched back permanently to plastic shell helmets (Kralite, rather than Tenite, this time).  For several years in the early 1940s, however, Northwestern was on the cutting edge-- at least, where the sport's helmet was concerned.

Many thanks, as always, to Northwestern University Archivist Kevin Leonard and the rest of the staff of the University Archives, for their help and valuable resources.

UPDATE: Another photo has surfaced of the see-through tenite helmets.

This clipping from 1940 shows (photo #3) an unidentified NU player wearing a purple practice jersey and the see-through helmet. [The magazine or newspaper source is unknown.  Photos from Dispatch Photo News.]

1. Thanks, WildBillCat!
2. Acme Newsphoto was a wirephoto service, which eventually merged with United Press International.
3. Chemical Industries, vol. 47, 1940, p 533. 
4. Cf. Daily Northwestern, February 13, 1941, p 7, which also mentions the new helmets.
5. Daily Northwestern, November 12, 1940, p 8.
6. Cf. Paul Lukas's 2004 post for, which gives more details about the earliest facemasks.
7. Daily Northwestern: Summer Northwestern, August 5, 1941, p 5.  The article itself, however, was syndicated, and appeared nationally on August 1, 1941.
8. Popular Mechanics.