Wednesday, January 21, 2015

                                     THE EFFECT OF FACEMASKS ON CONCUSSIONS 
                                                             By Jeffrey Earl Warren          

First Facemask, Otto Graham 1953

There is no doubt that the rise of concussions in football coincided with the evolution of the “facemask,” and the invention of the plastic suspension helmet.

The helmet, of course, was meant to protect a player from head injuries.  That it has ended up causing more injuries is one of life’s ironic “unintended consequences.”

 So too, the facemask. The first facemask was fashioned by Paul Brown’s equipment manager in 1953 to protect Otto Gramham’s lacerated mouth.    Made of clear  Lucite, it frequently shattered and was eventually  followed by the popular single bar mask which was ubiquitous in the 50’s. Facemasks do protect a player’s teeth, nose and eyes. 

And that is good.

Single Bar Facemask, originally 1957

However, when the single bar became the popular double bar mask of the early 60’s we began to go down the road where the mask, designed to protect the face, morphed into a weapon which could inflict damage and injury to the opposing player. 

Double Bar Facemask early 1960's

            It wasn’t the mask, per se, which caused the problem.  It was that once coaches realized that the mask could be used as a weapon, it changed the method of tackling—which has led to the increase in concussions today.

As everyone knows, football evolved from rugby.  Concussions are rare in rugby (despite the dearth of “protective” head gear) because the tackling techniques are different.

As no one wants to get his nose busted while engaging in a tackle the preferred technique is the shoulder tackle.  It quite simply made sense.  The defender would keep his head up (to avoid neck injury), place his head on the outside of the runner’s upper thigh, and attack the runner’s quadricep area with his shoulder while wrapping his arms around both legs.

Proper form for old fashioned "shoulder tackle"

This technique was used when Rutgers first kicked off to Princeton in 1869 and continued through the leather helmet era all the way up until the early 60’s.   

What no one planned for was the fact that the double did double duty.  While protecting the face from injury, it allowed a tackler to place his face right in an opposing runner’s chest without splattering his nose, (which would have occurred with a “facemask-less” leather helmet, or the minimal protection of a single bar).

In the 50’s, my father taught me to tackle the way his father taught him—head up, shoulder into the upper thigh, and arms wrapped around the legs.  In the 60’s that changed into what was called the “form tackle”—where the tackler lead with his head, planting it in the chest of the runner, and raising his helmet up under the runner’s chin.

Original tackling dummies

Rember the old tackling dummies?  They were hung from pulley on a bar or tree branch and a coach would raise and lower it (while also swinging it from side to side) forcing the tackler to keep his eyes on the target (i.e. head up to avoid neck injuries) and make sure that he didn’t miss.

The coup de grace in head first tackling came in the early 60’s when the double bar face mask morphed into a quasi cage, when an additional single bar (ostensibly to protect the nose) was fastened to the crown of the helmet horizontally and connected to the double bar which was fastened vertically to protect the mouth and teeth.

So now, instead of “getting low” with one’s back parallel to the ground and placing one’s head to the side of the thigh just below the waist, the “form tackle” became all the rage.

Perfect form for "safe" form tackle "Step on his toes and blow your nose"

The perfect “form tackle meant the defender would plant his feet wide;  place his face mask on the opponent’s numbers and come up under the runner’s chin with the tackler’s helmet.  It was summed up by our coaches with “Step on his toes and blow your nose” (on the runner’s jersey number).
In fact, at Cal, we were not to bring a runner to the ground.  Football was considered an extremely physical game, and “punishing” the runner was considered not only important, but vital to encouraging him to “give up,” wear out, and not play at full strength in the fourth quarter.

Rather than bring a runner to the ground, a tackler was to “stand the runner up,” and allow as many other defenders as possible to “lay a hat on him” (that is, ram into the runner with one’s helmet).

Barbaric as it sounds today, this was not only considered Kosher, it was the way the game was played.

It wasn’t enough to just tackle a ball carrier.  We were instructed to “put the hurt” on him.

This was impossible to do with leather helmets or single  bar facemasks.

Once the facemask reversed its role from protector of the facial features, to painful bludgeoning tool, the game was forever changed—and the chances for concussions increased exponentially.

Spearing became commonplace and Daryl Stingly type injuries became more prevalent across the country. 

Additionally, the increased strength and padding inside of plastic helmets fostered an attitude of invincibility and recklessness which engendered an epidemic of “leading with the helmet” tackles and changes in blocking techniques. 

Remember, you won’t lead with your helmet if it is going to hurt you more than it will your opponent.

It is important to note that there is no need to go back to the leather helmet era.  The sheer size of players today probably mitigates against that.  But we could go back to the double bar facemask.

Shoulder tackles can be “bone crushing” and exciting.  Does anyone think that Chuck Bednarik wasn’t a hitter?  In fact, a popular ESPN feature is the 1959 Colts/Giants Championship game—“The greatest game ever played.”  Watch it.  There are no “face in tackles.”  It’s all shoulder tackling and it is exciting as hell.

If we take the “facemask as weapon” out of the game, by returning to the double bar facemask-- tackling techniques will inevitably revert to rugby style shoulder take downs, and the number of concussions will drop dramatically—and the face (eyes and nose) will still be amply protected

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