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Uni Watch: The NFL’s face mask revolution

The Chargers ushered in a new era by making the face mask part of the NFL uniform color scheme. 

The Detroit Lions will reveal their new uniform set next Thursday, April 13, and some early reports indicate that the design may include chrome face masks. (A chrome grille for Detroit — appropriate, right?)

Chrome face masks aren’t new to the NFL. The Buccaneers have worn them for the past three seasons, and chrome is just one of the many mask colors currently on display around the league — green for the Packers, red for the Patriots, navy for the Titans, brown for the Browns and so on. Down at the college level, some schools even have multicolored face masks.

But it wasn’t always this way. For decades, face masks were a neutral tone, usually gray. There were very occasional instances of masks being painted in team colors, but those were rare examples involving individual players. The idea of treating the mask as a team-colored design element of an integrated uniform system didn’t come until 1974, when the Chargers unveiled a new uniform set that included something truly radical for its time: a yellow face mask.

More than four decades later, it’s no exaggeration to say that colored face masks have changed the look of football. Uniform historians have generally credited the Chargers for coming up with this innovation (there’s a slight asterisk to that, which we’ll get to shortly), but the story behind the move — and how it was almost scuttled right at the outset — has never been told until now.

Most of the key people in that story are deceased. But one of them is still with us: Bob Hood, who has very deep roots with the Chargers. He began working for the team as a waterboy in 1962 and by the early 1970s had been promoted to business manager. Although he stopped working for the team in 1978, he still lives in San Diego and has attended every Chargers home game, as either an employee or a fan, since 1961. He even met his wife at a Chargers fan event.

Hood, now 71, is a soft-spoken man who enjoys telling stories about his days with the Chargers. He recalls that the move toward football’s first colored face mask was set in motion in 1973. “Harland Svare was our coach and general manager at the time, and he had played for the New York Giants in his heyday,” he says. “I literally remember him telling me that he wanted a more ‘fierce’ look. So they enlisted someone to redesign the uniform, updating it to something that Harland felt would give the team a larger presence on the field, including a darker blue jersey and a blue helmet, similar to what he’d worn with the Giants.”

Unfortunately, Hood doesn’t know who the designer was, and further research has so far failed to turn up that person’s identity, so that aspect of the story remains a mystery. But Hood clearly recalls what happened next: “I was the business manager, so it was my job to get the thing executed. This piece of paper with the new uniform design was handed to me, and I was told, ‘We want to do this. See what you can do to make it happen.’ Obviously, this was before computer-generated graphics — I remember that the design was hand-drawn. I wouldn’t call it crayon-ish, but it was pretty close.”

NFL rules at the time required one year’s notice for uniform changes, so the plan was for the new look to debut in 1974. (Ironically, Svare stepped down as coach toward the end of the 1973 season, so the one-year delay meant that he never got to coach the team in the “fierce” design he had requested.) In those days, there was no leaguewide uniform contract like the one Nike currently has with the NFL. Teams simply cut their own deals with sportswear outfitters. Hood’s task seemed simple enough, because the design was fairly straightforward — except for the yellow face mask.

“I don’t want to say the colored face mask was an afterthought, but nobody had asked for that,” says Hood. “The dark-blue jersey and the blue helmet — yes, Harland Svare had wanted those. But the artist or designer, whoever that was, just included the yellow mask as part of the design. And everyone said, ‘Wow, that’s innovative!’ Nobody had ever thought of that before.”

But could it actually be produced? In the spring of 1973, Hood and the team’s equipment manager, Sid Brooks, headed off to the National Sporting Goods Association trade show in Chicago to find out.

“It was the two of us, literally with this piece of paper in hand, and off we went to Chicago,” says Hood. “Our mission was to go there as clandestinely as possible. We didn’t want other teams to know what we were doing, so it could become a PR and marketing opportunity. When we talked to vendors, we’d say, ‘We’re going to share something with you, and we’re asking you not to talk about it with the next team that comes in.'”

Their first stop was the Riddell booth. Riddell was already a powerhouse in the football world, establishing itself as a leading supplier of helmets and face masks. Most masks in those days were made of steel covered with a rubberized gray coating — that’s what would have to be changed to yellow in order for the Chargers’ new design to become a reality.

“We basically pulled out the piece of paper and said this is what we want,” says Hood. “They took one look at the face mask and said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you can make ’em in gray, why can’t you make ’em in yellow?’ And for a big company, they really didn’t see the big picture. I tried to explain to them, once a pro team does this, everyone from Pop Warner to other pro teams will want a colored face mask. And teams won’t just be buying one or two to replace the ones that are damaged — you’ll be selling entire sets of colored face masks. You’ll open up a whole new market. And they said, ‘Well, yeah, but we can’t do that, production-wise. It just can’t be done.'”

So Hood and Brooks took their drawing and walked a few aisles over to the booth of Dr. Fred Dunning, a dentist who had patented a lightweight aluminum face mask — again, with a gray coating — that he was selling under the brand name Dungard.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I think I can do that. I’ll make some prototypes and send them to you,'” Hood recalls. “It was just 180 degrees different from what Riddell had told us. So then we went back to the Riddell booth and said, ‘Hey, guys, we’ve made a deal with Dr. Dunning for the yellow face masks. So we’ll be buying your helmets, but we won’t be buying any masks.’ We thought that might lead them to change their attitude — and it did. Later on they found us during the trade show, said that they had talked to their production people, and it was all, ‘There may be a possibility … ‘ and ‘We’d like to take you out to dinner … ‘ and all of that. Obviously, somebody looked at the situation and decided it was worth it after all.”

The Chargers ended up buying yellow masks from both companies and gave players the option of which brand to choose. But some players were still wearing older one- and two-bar Riddell masks made from a gray composite material instead of coated steel. Riddell tried to produce those in yellow but couldn’t match the proper color, so Brooks, the equipment manager, decided to paint the old ones himself.

“We contacted a local paint manufacturer here in San Diego, and they mixed the color and put it in aerosol cans for us,” says Hood. “Sid and his staff spray-painted them — probably on a weekly basis, because the paint would get chipped off during games. Fortunately, we didn’t have too many players who used those masks. They were starting to get phased out.”

So the Chargers got to wear their yellow masks in 1974, and the look of football was forever changed. But here’s that asterisk: Nitpickers sometimes point out that 1974 was also when the Chiefs began wearing white face masks. Should they share credit for ushering in the team-colored mask revolution?

The feeling here is no. For one thing, every team had a white jersey, and most had other white uniform elements, so white doesn’t really qualify as a team-specific color. Moreover, there had been white plastic face masks in the past, so what the Chiefs were doing wasn’t entirely new.

(Interestingly, the Chiefs’ switch to white masks was more of a strategic move than an aesthetic one. In a 2004 interview, the team’s former equipment manager, Bobby Yarborough, said, “I felt that it would be much easier for a referee to spot a face mask grabbing violation in the interior line because an opponent’s hands could be seen more clearly against a white mask versus the less visible gray mask.” Yarborough died in 2013, so it’s not clear if he was aware of what the Chargers had been planning at the time. The Chiefs still wear white masks to this day.)

The Chargers kept their yellow masks until 1988, when they changed to navy — the color they still wear today. Meanwhile, Hood’s prediction has come true: From the NFL down to youth leagues, football teams routinely use team-colored masks. Hood has had ample opportunity to watch that phenomenon unfold, because he’s refereed high school and Pop Warner games for nearly 40 years. When he sees all those colored masks on the field, does he feel just a little bit proud?

“Yes, it feels good,” he says. “Of course, I’m biased, because I was involved with it from the start, but I think colored face masks enhance any uniform or helmet. I can’t remember seeing one I didn’t like. And you know, at the time I never gave it a thought, because it was just cosmetic. I never thought it would change the game. But it did.”

(Special thanks to John Turney of Pro Football Journal and Curtis Worrell of Helmet Hut for their research assistance.)

Paul Lukas roots for the 49ers, one of the five NFL teams that still wear gray face masks (although they did go with red from 1996 through 2008). If you like this column, you’ll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you’ll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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