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Football Fever: Inventions That Shaped the Modern Game

Throughout the southwestern Pennsylvania region where InventHelp® makes its home, the period from February to July is known as the "dark months" – a time when the rabid Steelers fans suffer from "football withdrawal." And so it is in many other football hotspots across the country. August, however, offers some hope for those affected by gridiron fever, as National Football League teams open training camps and begin preseason contests. With the NFL season poised to capture the imagination of millions of Americans, InventHelp is pleased to present the stories of two football inventions that fans are sure to see plenty of during the fall and winter months, when the pigskin is the undisputed king of the sporting world.

The Invention of Football Helmets

While "civilized" might not be best term to describe the modern version of American football, today's game looks like a friendly golf match when compared to the way it was played in its early stages. As football began to evolve in the latter part of the 19th century, the absence of protective gear and the lack of well-defined rules resulted in an alarming number of gruesome injuries and even fatalities.

In 1893, just before the annual Army-Navy contest, a doctor informed Navy Cadet Joseph Mason Reeves that another direct blow to the skull might cause death or "instant insanity." Determined to take the field against his team's arch-rival, Reeves had an Annapolis shoemaker construct a sturdy leather cap to shield his head during the game. Cadet Reeves thus became the first player in history to don a "football helmet" (albeit a rudimentary one).

Three years after Reeves' invention, Lafayette College halfback George Barclay made a significant improvement to its design. Barclay was mortally afraid of developing "cauliflower ear" – a byproduct of leaving one's ears exposed to constant collisions – and so he had a harness maker construct three heavy leather chin straps to hold his helmet securely over his hearing organs. The now-famous moniker "head-harness" subsequently emerged from Barclay's innovation.

But although helmets such as Reeves' and Barclay's certainly offered more protection than did playing bareheaded, they were not truly effective in preventing head trauma because the leather shells still rested directly against the wearer's skull. This glaring deficiency was not addressed until sometime around 1920, when companies like Spalding and Rawlings began producing helmets with interior suspension systems made from a series of crossed fabric straps. Not only did the new inserts help to soften blows and more evenly distribute the force of impact, but they also provided enhanced ventilation for the wearer.

Football Inventions: The Plastic HelmetHowever, despite these remarkable innovations, football helmets were still plagued by the natural limitations of leather exteriors, which simply were not strong enough to withstand the game's increasingly violent collisions. It became clear that a new breed of protective headgear was necessary, and in 1939 employees of the John T. Riddell Company designed and patented the first plastic helmet. By far the most important advance in football equipment to date, the Riddell unit was produced from a molded plastic shell that was, according to writer Beau Riffenburgh, "stronger, more durable and lighter than leather helmets, and it wouldn't rot or mildew the way they did when damp. It also had a revolutionary web suspension inside it." A year later Riddell patented the first plastic face mask, and helmets finally began to resemble their modern-day counterparts.

The Invention of Gatorade®

The year was 1965, and University of Florida Gators football coach Ray Graves watched helplessly as his players withered under the suffocating heat at "The Swamp" (the nickname for Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium). With only a few weeks left before the team's first game, Graves shuddered to think how his boys would hold up in a live contest – after all, many of them couldn't even make it through an entire practice. Every session resulted in at least several team members passing out from exhaustion and having to be carted away to the infirmary. No amount of water could relieve the crippling dehydration, and other liquids like juice and soda only induced nausea and vomiting in the athletes.

Desperate for a solution, Coach Graves turned to team doctor Dana Shires for help. Dr. Shires and his colleague, Dr. Robert Cade, formed a research team whose sole focus was to discover a more suitable means of fighting dehydration. The doctors quickly realized that fluid replacement alone was not enough; an effective remedy also needed to replenish the body's salt concentration and provide sufficient fuel for continued activity. Keeping these principles in mind, the researchers developed a drink that was infused with a combination of sodium and potassium salts, as well as with the energy-boosting carbohydrate, glucose. They named the beverage Gatorade® in honor of the school's football team.

To test their concoction, Shires and Cade filled some empty milk cartons and took them to the practice field. The drink was an instant success – the players reported that they felt much less fatigued after consuming it. For the first time all year no team members were forced from the field by dehydration. Fueled by their new secret weapon, Florida became a potent second-half team, and opposing coaches marveled at how the Gators seemed to grow stronger as the game went on. Coach Graves' team battled to a 7-4 record during that 1965 season, and the next year they went 9-2 and won the Orange Bowl for the first time in school history, defeating a tough Georgia Tech squad. Losing Coach Bobby Dodd bitterly remarked, "We didn't have Gatorade. That made the difference."

Soon after, Graves extolled the drink's benefits while talking with his friend Hank Stram, who was head coach of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs at the time. Willing to try almost anything to gain an edge over opponents, Stram requested a case of the new beverage. The results were so impressive that Gatorade became the Chiefs' official drink of choice, earning a prominent spot on the bench during Kansas City's 1969 Super Bowl championship season. The secret of "The Swamp" consequently exploded onto the national scene, as everyone from professional athletes to casual exercisers sought to enhance their performances with Gatorade. But while the beverage has in many ways become an athlete's best friend, it is reportedly far less popular among the countless coaches who have been forced to endure an icy-cold "Gatorade shower" in celebration of a victory.


We here at InventHelp hope that you find these football invention stories as interesting as we do. InventHelp salutes Joseph Reed, John Riddell, Dana Shires and all of the other innovators who helped to make football what it is today. When you're in front of the tube or at the stadium cheering on your favorite team this season, take a moment to remember that inventors and innovations have had a dynamic effect on the evolution of the game.

Back to August 2005 Newsletter

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