Football equipment innovation set the bar high for many other sports. While the most notable and original piece of football equipment is the helmet, the football shoulder pad has also been adopted and transformed for use by other sports such as hockey and lacrosse.
An old football axiom is that games are won by the team that best blocks and tackles. As the shoulder is the most utilized part of the body in these actions, an advantage might be reached by the team that best maximizes the effectiveness of this body part. This may explain the creation of this unique piece of sporting equipment.
The earliest shoulder pads were leather or canvas pads that were filled with horsehair or cotton and sewn on the outside of the jersey. This practice began in the early 1890’s. Later in the decade, the first shoulder pads worn inside the jersey were developed. They were also fiber-filled pads, but they had elastic straps that went around the head and simply rested on the tops of one’s shoulders.
By 1910, straps were added that went under the arms to further keep the pads in place. Leather also became a utilized material and the protection was carried farther out to the point where the shoulder met the upper arm. The center of the pads were also extended lower down the chest, to cover not just the shoulder but halfway down the breast bone. The two halves of the pads were joined by laces.
Over the years, the padding became thicker, and the outer shell of the pads became firmer. One stiffening product was the use of bamboo reeds.
The modern shoulder pad began to take shape in the early 1930’s. The big technological advancement of this period was the principle of cantilevering. Widely used in construction, a cantilever is an overhanging structure that is supported or anchored at only one end. The modern shoulder pad used a series of stacked overhanging pads held away from and above the actual shoulder with straps. Once the player came in contact with an opponent, the series of supported pads would compress and absorb the shock of the collision.
The size of the pads grew with time as materials changed from natural to plastic. Position specific pads were also developed. By the 1980’s pads had reached their apex in size and strength.
Today, with lighter materials, the physical weight of the shoulder pad is down to four pounds, half of what it was only 10-15 years ago. With players seeking speed and a greater range of motion todays pads are thinner, lighter more flexible, and cushion the player as never before.