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An Excerpt From 'Newton's Football'

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This excerpt appears in the book Newton's Football by Allen St. John and Ainissa Ramirez.  The authors spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview with St. John and Ramirez and read Bill’s book review.)


CHAPTER 3 -- The Robust and Fragile Face Mask of Otto Graham

Otto Graham had been through the meat grinder. Or at least that’s how a sportswriter described the fifteen-stitch gash to the Cleveland quarterback’s cheek in a November 1953 game against San Francisco. This wound would change the course of football history.

Graham is one of football’s largely forgotten heroes. He quarterbacked the Cleveland Browns for ten years, leading his team to the title game in each of those seasons, winning seven championships. Graham’s Browns started play in the All-American Football League, a league that merged with the NFL in 1950. When the AAFC champion Browns played the defending NFL champ Philadelphia Eagles in the opening game of the newly merged league, Graham orchestrated a stunning 35–10 upset victory that predated Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III heroics by almost two decades. While Graham is just a name in the record book to modern fans, serious football scholars and analysts argue that Graham belongs on any short list of the great quarterbacks of all time. Peter King of Sports Illustrated called Graham the best ever, making this elegant argument for his supremacy: “He won seven league titles and seven passing titles in a legendary ten-year career.” And yet his most enduring contribution to the game may not be something he did but something he wore: a helmet with pro football’s very first modern face mask.

The very first helmet, made of leather, was introduced six decades earlier, in the Army-Navy game of 1893. A doctor had warned one of the Navy players, Joseph Mason Reeves, that he risked “instant insanity” or even death if he suffered another kick to the head. The earliest helmets, like the one worn by Reeves, provided minimal protection and could actually be folded up and put in a player’s pocket. Lafayette halfback George Barclay, who is generally credited as the inventor of the football helmet, wasn’t concerned with his life or his sanity but with ending up with misshapen caulifl ower ears. In 1896, he commissioned a saddle maker to build him a sturdier helmet that consisted of three large padded leather straps. These helmets were called “head harnesses,” an apt description.

But the helmet trend was slow to catch on. Most players in the first two decades of the new century didn’t wear helmets, and it wasn’t until 1939 that helmets were made mandatory. After World War I, football helmets became more substantial, resembling the helmets worn by early aviators. (Indeed, Reeves would go on to become an admiral and is credited with pioneering the use of aircraft carriers, while Navy paratroopers used a variation on his early football helmet.) Still made out of leather, these second-generation helmets were more heavily padded, which improved their ability to absorb impact, and some of them incorporated primitive suspension systems that further isolated the head from shock.

After World War II, materials science was applied to the problem, and plastic helmets that followed the basic design of their leather predecessors were introduced. The earliest plastic helmets were brittle and prone to cracking—Fred Naumetz of the Rams broke nine in a single season—and were actually banned for a year by the NFL while the problem was being resolved. Graham wore one of the earliest plastic helmets, but the design—which lacked a face mask—didn’t take full advantage of the new materials.

Until Graham’s injury, that is. When Browns coach Paul Brown, one of the game’s great innovators, saw the mangled face of his star quarterback, he realized that Graham was one unlucky hit away from being lost for the rest of the season. His solution? Have the team’s equipment manager fashion a crude face mask out of clear Lucite that would attach directly to the helmet in the style of a modern face mask. It wasn’t a particularly elegant remedy, but it served the purpose. The jury-rigged face mask protected Graham’s vulnerable cheek from defenders, Cleveland’s star quarterback stayed healthy, and the Browns went on to advance to the NFL Championship Game, which they lost by a single point.

Football scholars have lauded Brown as the architect of modern professional football. He hired the first full-time front office, established in-depth scouting for college talent, analyzed film of games and practices, and housed players in a hotel room the night before a home game, among his many other contributions. In the mid-1950s, he even attached a crude radio receiver to the quarterback’s helmet, which presaged today’s sophisticated on-field communications. But as important as Brown’s other innovations were, none of them changed the game as profoundly as that improvised face mask.

The Lucite face mask was, at best, a stopgap measure. Also known as Plexiglas, the first transparent acrylics were fabricated in the 1930s. The advantages? They were easy to mold and transparent, so Graham’s vision wasn’t obstructed. The disadvantage? These early acrylics were extremely brittle, almost like glass. Graham was lucky he didn’t end up with a face full of plastic shards.

Like so much of sports history, the conventional yarn about Otto Graham’s face mask is part truth and part myth. Some college players had fashioned crude face masks during the leather helmet era, many of them resembling a modern hockey goalie’s mask, but they never caught on, mostly because of the diffi culty of securing a rigid mask to a flexible helmet. A few college players also used face masks on plastic helmets before Graham. A notable example was Johnny Bright of Drake University, who was flattened by a vicious and racially motivated hit by an Oklahoma A&M player in 1951. Bright, who lost his chance at becoming the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy because of his injury, returned wearing a face mask. This was two years before Graham’s innovation. But the fact that a pro football star like Otto Graham wore a face mask helped make the new gear acceptable. The plastic face mask was soon replaced by metal models, like the single bar BT-5, which was followed by more intricate designs customized for the player’s position. Graham’s makeshift face mask would have a profound and lasting effect on the game of football. But not in the ways that you might expect.

Why do boxers wear gloves? Casual fans think the answer is not only easy but obvious. The gloves protect the fighter.

But which fighter? And from what? It’s true that boxing gloves do protect the fighter who’s getting hit, at least to some degree. But that’s only part of the picture. Bare-knuckle fights can be nasty, bloody affairs, however the earliest boxing matches rarely ended with a life-threatening injury. That’s because the most vulnerable part of a fighter isn't his head or even his face. It’s his hands. Throw one too many punches and you’ll break one of the fragile bones in your hand, which will end the fight right away. That’s why bareknuckle fighters would trade body blows but very rarely punch an opponent in the head. And why smart bartenders of old would wrap a towel around their fist before pummeling an unruly drunk.

Boxing gloves, it turns out, are designed to protect not the head but the hands. But that allows fighters to hit each other in the head for fifteen rounds, or until one fighter is knocked unconscious. Or worse.

And so it is with the modern football helmet. Graham’s primitive face mask ushered in a new era of equipment, and soon every player was wearing one. But it became apparent that these improved helmets would be used in ways that Paul Brown never foresaw. In much the same way that boxing gloves made the fi st a lethal weapon, the face mask allowed defenders to use their newly protected heads to administer bone-jarring tackles. The gladiators of the gridiron now had their most important piece of armor. The face mask changed the game, but it didn't make it safer.

The reason behind this counter intuitive outcome is two-pronged. On a nuts-and-bolts level, a helmet with a face mask allows a player to spear an opponent with his head. In the pre-face-mask era, the cost of tackling with your head was a broken nose or a shattered jaw. The face mask virtually eliminated that risk.

The other side of the equation is psychological. A phenomenon called compensatory behavior explains why safety devices don’t always work as their designers predict. The theory suggests that people have a preset tolerance for risk, and that if a safety device lowers the perceived risk, the individual will—perhaps subconsciously—modify his or her own behavior to reach that internal threshold. In other words, when some device makes you feel safe, you’re more likely to behave recklessly. The brain outsources the job of protecting the body to the device, impairing good judgment. For example, drivers behind the wheel of large new SUVs with four-wheel drive and air bags tend to drive faster and more aggressively on snowy roads than they would if they were driving a tiny old economy car. A football player with a helmet and a face mask feels well-protected— perhaps even invincible—and will tackle in ways that he wouldn't even consider with a bare head.

“Football would make a very good case study,” says Caltech professor John Doyle. “You’re going to see an incredibly rich series of trade off s wherever you look.” Doyle knows about trade-off s. The university directory calls him Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems, Electrical Engineering, and Bioengineering, but his area of research is dynamic feedback. He studies complex systems—from yeast cells to the next iteration of the Internet—to understand how they work and can be made to work better. It’s a relatively new fieeld,

From the Book, NEWTON’S FOOTBALL by Ainissa Ramirez and Allen St. John. Copyright © 2013 by Ainissa Ramirez and Allen St. John. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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