Special to Page 2
"Back in the old days, you could tell who a player was, or at least what position he played, just by his facemask," says Curtis Worrell. "Today's masks are so generic, the players basically look like robots, or interchangeable parts."
Worrell knows what he's talking about. He and his business partner, Jim Parker, run Helmet Hut, the football world's premier virtual helmet museum and authorized helmet-reproduction firm. With enough detailed historical knowledge to make Uni Watch look like a mere dilettante (plus a rather unique on-site reference resource), they're experts on everything from players' mask preferences to mask manufacturers. So Worrell seemed like the right guy to call when Uni Watch decided to take a look at facemask history.
Worrell's point about the masks of yore is dead-on. Back in the day, the mere mention of a player's name conjured up a mental image of his facemask, whether it was Larry Csonka's nose guard, Joe Namath's cowcatcher, or Terry Bradshaw's narrow two-bar (at least until he switched to that boring mask late in his career). But can you name even one current player with a†distinctive mask? No wonder so many of them insist on dancing around like clowns on the field -- they can't express their individuality through their facemasks anymore.
The party line, repeated in many sources, is that the first facemask was worn by Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns, who got elbowed in the mouth during the first half of a 1953 game and then played the second half wearing a piece of plastic that coach Paul Brown taped to his helmet.
It's a good story, but Worrell says the reality is a bit more complex. "Everyone has their own opinion on who was first," he explains, "but we know for a fact that it wasn't Otto Graham. Some of the improvised stuff probably goes back to the 1920s. We've even got an old helmet with a mask made of barbed wire."
Graham's true legacy, says Worrell, is that he wore the first mask that was meant to be a mask. "After Paul Brown came up with that improvised mask, within a few weeks Riddell (the longtime helmet manufacturer) made the very first Lucite mask for him. That was the first mask that was designed to attach to a helmet."
Although the clear Lucite masks looked really cool, they were brittle. "The Lucite would shatter upon impact, and people would get cut or get the fragments in their eyes," says Worrell. "So around 1957, they had to ban it."
Worrell and his Web site are loaded with facemask arcana, like the fact that Chiefs teammates Otis Taylor and Fred Williamson both had two separate masks bolted onto their helmets at once, or the exact catalog stock number of Ernie Stautner's platypus-like mask. Here are Worrell's comments on some other notable masked men:
John Henry Johnson: "That was the very first one-bar mask that Riddell produced. It didn't stick out very far, so nowadays some people refer to it as the 'stubby.' One interesting thing is that when Joe Theismann was playing, he wanted something like the stubby. But it wasn't being manufactured anymore, so he took a modern one-bar and shoved it as far back as possible on his helmet, so there'd be nothing to interfere with his vision."
Joe Perry: "People were complaining about broken noses with the one-bar, so they tweaked it upward to give a bit more nose protection. Eddie LeBaron wore one of these in conjunction with a one-bar, which looked kind of like a duck -- that's one of my favorites!" (It's also worth noting that Perry had previously worn an even odder mask, designed by Dr. M.T. Marietta, whose product line included some real doozies.)
Y.A. Tittle and Roosevelt Brown: "Both of those players had had broken facial bones, so they needed extra protection. Also, the helmets back then were soft and would bend in. So the idea of that metal bracketing was to absorb the impact and keep it from caving in."
John Williams: "He used two Dungard facemasks. The upper one could actually flip up, like sunglasses, but they usually taped it to the lower one."
But for some players, the best mask was no mask at all. It's generally agreed that the final lineman to play without a mask was Jess Richardson of the Patriots, who retired in 1964. The last maskless player at a skill position is a matter of some dispute, but Worrell recently came up with this photo of wide receiver Tommy McDonald playing unmasked for the Browns in 1968, which would appear to end the debate.
Or does it? Pat Studstill wore a facemask while playing flanker but switched to a maskless helmet when punting, placing him in a sort of gray area. "He was doing that for the Rams as late as 1971," says Worrell. And Bobby Joe Green of the Bears might have been doing likewise as late as 1974.
Worrell has little use for today's characterless facemasks (including the odd-looking ones found on the new Riddell Revolution helmets, which he says are known in the trade as "field hockey masks"). But he has a special place in his heart for veteran placekicker Morten Andersen, who's kept wearing his old-fashioned Dungard two-bar while playing with the Saints, the Falcons, the Giants , the Chiefs, and now the Vikings.
"That's my boy," says Worrell. "He's a real throwback and he's not gonna change. And you know, that mask is directly bolted on at the top [instead of being held by clips], which isn't even legal today, because there's no give. He can only wear it because he's grandfathered in."
Worrell also doesn't much care for today's color-coordinated facemasks. "Just gimme basic gray," he says. (He no doubt loves that Titans kicker Gary Anderson wears a gray one-bar, even though the rest of the team wears navy.) Ah, but then we wouldn't have great little stories like the 1974 Chiefs, who switched from gray masks to white because their equipment manager figured the contrast of an opponent's hand against a white mask would make it easier for officials to spot facemask penalties.
It's a good thing the Helmet Hut folks are around to document all this minutiae, because the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame are surprisingly spotty on the uni-related aspects of gridiron history. But as Worrell points out, the NFL wasn't always the high-profile operation it is today.
"Remember, for decades this was a league that had no money," he says. "I mean, they were paying their players in the parking lot after the game. They just couldn't be bothered with archiving all this stuff." Fortunately, he's done it for them.
Jersey Names Follow-Up
Uni Watch's recent examination of player names on the backs of jerseys prompted a hailstorm of e-mail from readers pointing out additional examples. Among the better contributions, with thanks to all who responded:
And here's one last late-breaking example: During her final game with the U.S. national soccer team last week, Mia Hamm played the first half wearing a jersey with her surname; but in the second half, she changed to a jersey with the name of her famous husband.
Meanwhile, there's the matter of Ichiro Suzuki, who wears "Ichiro" on his jersey. A sizable contingent of "Gotcha!"-minded readers took Uni Watch to task for referring to this as his first name, many of them offering impromptu tutorials in how Asian cultures put the family name first and the given name second (which is why Yao Ming wears "Yao" on his uniform).
Thanks, gang, but you're all wrong. Ichiro is indeed his given name and Suzuki his family name. Here's some additional context, courtesy of T. Scott Brandon of the Society for American Baseball Research:
"Although it is Asian custom -- still frequently observed in Japan -- to use the family name first, the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB or, as we in America call it, the Japanese League) has traditionally used the 'first/last' name format. Players on NPB teams, other than Ichiro and a few other notable exceptions, wear their family names in English on the backs of their uniforms."
"Suzuki is a common name, and when Ohgi-kantoku took over as manager of the team in 1994, he assigned an unknown kid his first name on the back of his uniform: Ichiro. This was done under the guise of 'fan service,' to promote more interest in the team ... Ichiro became a household name that year, as he became the first player to break the 200-hit barrier in Japanese baseball history."
Uni Watch's next column will look back at the key uni-related moments of 2004 -- the best of the best, the worst of the worst, and the most notable of everything in between. Reader nominations are welcome (as long as they don't include lectures about Asian names), so send them to email@example.com.
Paul Lukas got in trouble for hacksawing one of the crossbars off the facemask of his youth-league football helmet, but it was worth it because it looked really cool. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a uni-related question or comment for him? Send it here.