It wasn’t long ago that football players would go to battle in what could be described as full body armor.
Heavy helmets. Big, bulky shoulder pads. Rib pads. They were all part of a player’s arsenal.
Now, football players are getting by with less, and that doesn’t mean they’re less safe than their predecessors.
“They’re a lot more streamlined now, as far as shoulder pads, thigh pads and knee pads are concerned,” Columbus North coach Tim Bless said. “The whole name of the game anymore is speed, so anything you can do to help make a player faster, yet still make them safe and safer, then that’s what manufacturers do. Those helmets are lighter than the old helmets, but they’re also significantly safer and more supportive.”
Bless said he discards helmets once they are 10 years old. Columbus East coach and athletics director Bob Gaddis returns helmets to the manufacturer and orders new ones when they reach 5 years old.
Most of the newer helmets have four points of air hookups.
“The helmet has probably gone through the most study,” Gaddis said. “Before, they had the suspension helmets that didn’t have much padding in them. But since Riddell went to putting those air packs in them, they just keep getting better every year, and really starts on the inside of the helmet. So now, when you fit an athlete for a helmet, not only do you pick his correct size, but you put air in there to make it custom fit.”
Today’s shoulder pads are significantly smaller than those of the past and are equipped with belts instead of straps.
“The biggest thing you’re going to see is, they’re streamlined down a lot,” Bless said. “You think about the 1980s football player with these great big shoulder pads, and they looked massive. Now, if you look at especially NFL, college, but it trickles down to high school, it’s hard to tell whether they’re wearing shoulder pads or not because they’re so streamlined and so capped to the shoulder, which makes an athlete’s range of motion and functional ability a lot better.”
Both Bless and Gaddis said bulky rib pads have gone by the wayside. Bless said quarterbacks often wear rib pads, but they’re a lot sleeker models, or they’re like a hex pad-type T-shirt that has padding in it, as opposed to the old school padding that looked like a flak jacket.
Also gone are cowboy collars and neck rolls.
“I think that’s as much as anything a change in fundamentals,” Bless said. “Because of head trauma and head safety, coaches work like heck to keep kids’ faces out of contact. That’s when you would get the neck stingers and those sort of things, so as you’re recovering from those type of things, you’d see kids with bulked up neck safety devices, and you really don’t see those in the game anymore.”
Gaddis said padded gloves have replaced forearm pads as blocking rules have changed.
“You used to see kids wear forearm pads a lot, but then they changed the rules where you can block with your hands,” Gaddis said. “When I first started coaching, you couldn’t use your hands. You had to block with your forearms and the shoulders. Now, it’s not unusual to teach your kids that their first contact on offense especially is with their hands.
“A lot of them wear gloves that have some padding,” he said. “There’s gloves now that have sticky stuff on them that’s legal, so you’ll see kids wearing those gloves that have that material because they make the ball stick a little bit better.”
Bless said that not only are the pads and helmets lighter, uniform tops and pants are also lighter.
“A game jersey used to be this two-ply mesh,” Bless said. “It felt like it was made out of stainless steel. (Now), they’re so tight, they’re so light, and it’s almost the same with game pants. The old day of burlap-feeling polyester is long gone.”
At a glance
Here’s a look at a current set of football pads worn by each Columbus East player and what they cost.
Shoulder pads: $136
Girtle pad: $35
Thigh/knee pads: $20
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