Uniform evolution has NFLers dressed for success

The NFL uniform has  come a long way since  New Orleans hosted its first Super Bowl in 1970

Take a look at some of the first Super Bowls played in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and you’ll find there are some things missing: gloves, bulky elbow pads and knee braces.

Many of the necessities worn by today’s players — most notably sturdier helmets and extra padding to protect the shoulders, ribs, back and hands — didn’t become available until years later.

In many ways, the old uniforms were primitive — especially the thinly lined plastic helmets that are the topic of much discussion these days as they relate to player safety.

In the more than four decades between New Orleans’ first Super Bowl on Jan. 11, 1970, in old Tulane Stadium and Super Bowl XLVII, to be played Feb. 3 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, almost everything — from head to toe — has changed.

Since players are bigger, stronger and faster — and their salaries have grown up, too — it’s almost a necessity to have a virtual suit of armor on when players take the field. That’s why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made player safety a priority since he accepted the job in 2006.

But when Super Bowl IV came to New Orleans for the last true AFL/NFL championship game before the rival leagues merged, uniforms weren’t quite what they were in the early days of the NFL.

That’s especially true of the helmets, which were made of hard plastic and had protective facemasks as opposed to the crude leather headgear that became mandatory in the 1930s.

Still, uniforms had a long, long way to go.

Protection where it counts

Former LSU standout Roy “Moonie” Winston, who started at linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV, said he didn’t use a lot of padding because it was too restrictive.

Winston said the few pads available back then were made of heavy plastic or thick foam, and they didn’t exactly fit with the jerseys and pants of the day.

“I never thought much about it when I played,” said Winston, who participated in four Super Bowls and played in 202 games with the Vikings from 1962-76. “I didn’t play with hip pads or any of that stuff. I wanted to play with as little as possible to be light and mobile.”

That’s the goal of the linebackers, defensive backs, running backs and wide receivers, who all need to roam the field quickly and easily.

“If you did wear some kind of pad, you wore whatever you wanted to protect the most,” Winston said with a laugh.

Former Southern receiver Frank Pitts, who played in Super Bowls I and IV with the Chiefs, agreed.

“There has been a big change,” he said. “We didn’t have the stuff they do now, but we just got out there and got ready to play. We weren’t particular about what we wore. We were concentrating on winning more than anything else.”

Seeing it all

New Orleans Saints head equipment manager Dan “Chief” Simmons has seen the evolution of the modern uniform up close and personal.

After a stint in the Navy, which included a tour of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s, he joined his father, Bill, a longtime equipment manager for the then-St. Louis Cardinals.

Simmons said he walked into his father’s equipment room in 1971, the first of his two years with him before the Saints hired him away, and can only laugh now at what he saw then.

“The biggest thing is the number of players and coaches and people you have on the staff,” he said. “You had seven coaches back then, 40 players, the trainer, video guys and my dad and myself.”

Now, Simmons, who just completed his 40th season with the Saints and is the longest-tenured employee in franchise history, has to outfit 61 players and close to 100 people.

When he started, he said every player had a helmet, shoulder pads, jersey, pants and two pair of shoes — and little else. Now, he has to stock those essentials, as well as socks and jocks and all manner of pads to offer maximum protection for players, whom organizations have invested millions of dollars in.

Safety first

One of the biggest changes Simmons has seen is in the helmets and face masks, which is not a surprise given the rise in head and neck injuries.

In the early 1970s, most players used single- or double-bar facemasks for a helmet that had no real padding — just a support strap attached to the inside of the crown to protect the top of the head.

“There was a little string in there that you tied into a knot,” Simmons said. “In the mid- to late 1970s, they came out with a helmet that at least had a little padding in it. But you couldn’t inflate (the padding) in them like the ones we have now.”

“They hardly had anything in them. It basically was like a plastic shell,” Winston said. “All you had was that suspension, just a little circle, in the center of the helmet.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the shoes. In 1971, Simmons said most players had a pair a practice shoes and a pair of game shoes, and he and his father would regularly change out the laces and polish them for the players.

Now, most players have stacks and stacks of boxes containing all types of shoes for various types of field and weather conditions.

“We didn’t have the shoe contracts we have now,” Simmons said with a laugh. “Guys have 20 pairs of shoes in their lockers, for crying out loud. It’s crazy.”

New technology

The fabric used for the jerseys and pants has changed, too. The uniforms of the 1960s and ’70s featured jerseys with short sleeves flapping in the breeze and baggy pants held up by belts with buckles.

“The biggest thing is the change in the material and the way they’re cut,” Simmons said. “All of the jerseys are smaller and tighter, even on the offensive and defensive linemen.”

Over the years, players have looked for every advantage they could get, and having form-fitting jerseys with sleeves that contained elastic made it difficult for opponents to lock on.

“Back then, the linemen didn’t get their jerseys tailored. … Nobody did,” Simmons said. “You got them off the rack, and you only had one or two styles that were used. You didn’t have all the tight-fitting sleeves and stuff like that.”

Simmons said when All-Pro guard Conrad Dobler joined the team in 1978, the offensive linemen went to shorter, tighter sleeves, which dramatically cut down on the number of sacks they gave up.

“Now, everybody on the team wants their sleeves tighter and shorter,” Simmons said.

Heavier cloth gave way to lighter fabric and, eventually, the new Nike duds — called Elite 51 uniforms — that were trotted out last spring and used for the first time this season. According to the Buffalo Bills’ website, the sleek uniforms feature Nike’s Flywire fabric in the neckline. It allows the jersey to stretch but regain its form to prevent it from slipping off the shoulder pads when a player is tackled.

Pants also were redesigned for maximum comfort, with lightweight padding added to “hit zones” in the base layer of the uniforms. The goal was to amplify speed and give players greater range of motion — just the latest tweak Simmons has seen over the years.

“Oh my gosh, it’s changed,” he said. “It’s changed a lot.”