Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Man in the Iron (Face)Mask

I'm intrigued by this Sports Illustrated cover of Bart Starr from 1961:

It's hard to tell from the scan, but it appears that Starr's gray facemask is covered with green paint, flaking and scraping off.

If that is the case and not just a photographic quirk, the helmet would have looked something like this:

That one SI cover isn't the only indication that the Packers were experimenting with a green facemask. The cover of the Packers' 1960 yearbook, with a game photo presumably taken in 1959, appears to show Paul Hornung and Jerry Kramer wearing dark facemasks:

This press photograph of Boyd Dowler, taken on December 6, 1959 in Los Angeles during a game against the Rams, would seem to confirm it.

I'm usually reluctant to read too much into old photographs, especially considering how many of them were hand-tinted and recolored with rather interesting results:

In this case, it does seem plausible. Now, we do know that if this was an early experiment with green facemasks, it was short-lived (and based on that Sports Illustrated cover, we may know why). The gray would be firmly established before the helmet logo was added in 1961:

If the Packers had been able to make the green facemask work back in 1959 or 1960, they would have been at the forefront of football uniform evolution. Although colored facemasks weren't unknown in the 1950s, they wouldn't become a fully-integrated element of team design until the Chargers issued gold to all players in 1974.

The Chargers' gold facemasks kicked off a revolution. The Bills joined the club with blue two years later, and virtually all other teams would follow (including the Packers in 1980). Three teams held fast to their original gray: the Cardinals, Cowboys and Raiders (leaving only the Cardinals with a facemask outside the team color palette).

Gray facemasks have made a resurgence in recent years as a more traditional æsthetic has returned to the NFL. When teams want to adopt an old-school football look, gray facemasks are positively de rigueur.

The gray facemask (especially a single- or double-bar quarterback version) signifies toughness, endurance. As John Facenda once said, "It speaks of duels in the snow and cold November mud". He was talking about Vince Lombardi's name, but the two are inexorably entwined. They are both enduring icons of the 1960s, the most significant era in pro football's history.

How different would the sport's æsthetics be today if Bart Starr had worn this helmet during the first two Super Bowls?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I attended my first Green Bay Packers game in 1968 at Milwaukee's County Stadium, where the Pack squared off against the Minnesota Vikings. Fred Cox, the straight-away kicker for the visitors, was on the cover of the program.

I do not recall the Packers ever wearing a green face mask that season. The SI photo, I believe, shows the typical grey bar with wear from hits and banging around that Bart experienced.