Just a few days ago, the College Football Hall of Fame and Chick-fil-A Fan Experience opened a new exhibit on the latest trend in football equipment – alternate helmets. The trend began at Oregon some 15 years ago and has grown to where most FBS teams have at least one alternate helmet and uniform design to unveil for special occasions.
This month we’ll take a look back on how the technology of the entire uniform has evolved over the past 150 years. We’ll go from the ground up, starting with footwear.
In the very first college football game in 1869, the players from Princeton and Rutgers wore the same shoes that they would in normal everyday life. Once college football began to be an organized activity in the middle of the next decade, all aspects of the sport took on a more serious and thought-out tone, including equipment. In these early days, football only had baseball domestically to look at as a means of adopting appropriate equipment. But in 1873, a rule was written that spikes or iron plates were forbidden, making the short term use of baseball shoes illegal.
In the 1880’s both college football and European soccer teams began wearing high-laced shoes with strips of leather or wood affixed to the soles. Generally , a shoe might have two or three strips of material running across the shoe near the ball of the foot and one or two across the heel. Individual cleats soon followed, with small leather pieces being glued and nailed together to form inverted pyramids of leather. A typical shoe might have five large cleats on the ball and three at the heel.
Sporting goods manufacturers quickly began to mass-produce shoes and developed numerous and varied cleat patterns. Companies such as Spalding began producing shoes that would be both field condition and player-specific, including specialized kicking shoes. In the early 1920’s, the first interchangeable cleats appeared- hard rubber cleats that could be screwed into a socket on the sole of the shoe.
High-topped shoes giving added ankle support were used by all players until the mid 1920’s, when some backs began wearing the low-quarter shoes most player wear today. By the end of the decade, cleat patterns and materials had become fairly standard. The use of plastic was delayed by World War II, but once this material became available, shoe evolution became slowed down until the mid to late 1960’s.
The impetus behind further evolution was the advent of artificial turf. Shorter studs and more cleats were needed to maintain traction on his surface. This led to a molded sole to accommodate the numerous smaller studs. In an era when artificial fields were few and far between, many schools supplied shoes to visiting teams. At this point many foreign shoe manufactures began making inroads into the shoe market introducing lighter weight materials. These European manufactures also began a trend where football shoe cleat patterns greatly resembled those of soccer shoes.
Over the past 30 years, shoes have become increasingly lighter and more colorful. In the late 1960’s players wearing white shoes were considered to be attention grabbing show-boats but today schools outfit players in shoes of nearly shade and color.