Face of the NFL is gone: An ode to the single-bar
August, 11, 2009
By Tim Graham | ESPN.com
|David Stluka/Getty Images|
|Punter Scott Player represents the end of the single-bar facemask era.|
The NFL went as far as it could to replicate history.
The Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans were in their original duds in Sunday night's Pro Football Hall of Fame Game.
Clubs are wearing throwback uniforms this year in selected Legacy Games to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American Football League, with Canton's preseason opener the first exhibition.
A lone red Buffalo stood proudly on the Bills' helmets. The Titans were dressed like their ancestors, the Houston Oilers, complete with derricks. Referees were on patrol in orange-striped jerseys.
No matter how hard the NFL tries to recapture the olden days, one glaring omission makes it impossible:
The single-bar facemask is gone and not coming back.
Anybody who remembers Alcoa's "Fantastic Finishes" should feel a little older.
The single-bar facemask is extinct because a guy whose middle name is Darwin couldn't survive last season.
Scott Darwin Player, the veteran punter, will go down as the last single-barista. He was grandfathered in when the NFL banned the single-bar facemask in 2004. But the dispensation ended because Player couldn't remain active last year, an NFL spokesman told ESPN.com in an e-mail. The New England Patriots cut him before training camp opened, and the single-bar hasn't been seen since.
The boys have been wistful down at the Fraternal Order of Kickers union hall.
"It's an era that will never come back again," former Miami Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian said of the one-bar facemask, which he proudly wore.
|Malcolm Emmons/US Presswire|
|Joe Theismann was the last non-kicker to wear the single-bar.|
The single-bar facemask was a prominent symbol on all sorts of NFL team merchandise into the 1970s. The league is using single-bar helmet imagery on all sorts of merchandise related to this year's series of Legacy Games.
"It started fading out around '86," said former Dolphins equipment manager Bobby Monica. "People didn't think about it or care at the time.
"Now everybody's going to be debating on the last guy they remember wearing one."
The NFL banned them as a safety issue. Player has been trying out for teams and is optimistic he will be signed during training camp for another shot at prolonging his career.
He hinted the AFC East was a strong possibility. The New York Jets don't have a proven punter. The Dolphins have only Brandon Fields in camp and could be looking to bring in competition as they did Monday for kicker Dan Carpenter.
If Player does return, he'll need to find a loophole in the NFL's policy to keep wearing his beloved single-bar or get back to the standard quarterback/kicker facemask.
One of the top reasons to use a single-bar facemask was visibility.
"It just lets me see the whole football," said Player, a Pro Bowler in 2000 for the Arizona Cardinals. "That bar always seemed to be in the way, so I said 'You know what? Let's just get rid of the whole thing.' "
Player inserted only one screw on either side of the bar, creating a hinge. He would pull the bar well below his chin -- essentially putting him in an open-faced helmet -- to see the ball better when he dropped the ball to punt. He swiveled the bar back up once the ball left his foot so he would be protected somewhat on coverage.
"One bloody nose in 11 years of using it," said Player, who adopted what he calls a "convertible" in 1997. "I've seen a lot worse injuries with guys in regular facemasks. I never shied away from a tackle. I always put my face right in there."
Player's convertible would have been disallowed last year anyway had he latched on with a team. The NFL notified him he would've been required to use two screws on each side as required by the manufacturer's warranty.
So the NFL literally put the screws to the single-bar facemask.
"We're closing a chapter in professional football," said former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, the last non-kicker to wear the single-bar when he retired 24 years ago.
"I'm tickled I was part of something that will no longer exist in the game. Now you officially feel like you're a part of history."
Player, 39, last played in 2007. He appeared in three games as an emergency replacement for the Cleveland Browns. If that's the last line on the back of his trading card, then that would allow the semicircle faceguard to come full circle.
|Robert Riger/Getty Images|
|Quarterback Otto Graham of the Browns was the first player to wear a facemask.|
Team namesake and patriarch Paul Brown conceived the single-bar facemask. He ordered equipment manager Leo Murphy to fashion an appliance to keep quarterback Otto Graham on the field during a game in 1953. Graham's mouth had been torn open, but he came back after halftime and managed a victory.
Brown soon mandated facemasks for all of his players. Other teams eventually adopted a similar policy.
"It opened up a whole new thing and, of course, it's been very beneficial," Murphy said from his home in Medina, Ohio.
"Anything you can do to protect the players ... It saved an awful lot of teeth and broken jaws. It progressed the game and made it better."
Although crude facemasks existed before, they were used only by players with healing facial injuries. Because helmets weren't designed to accommodate accessories, holes had to be punched into them so the bars could be tied in place with rawhide.
Once Brown patented the BT-5 (the initials stood f
or "bar tubular"), it was mass produced by Riddell.
The two largest helmet manufacturers, Riddell and Schutt, don't even make the single-bar facemask anymore and haven't for years.
Historic Helmets, a company in Warsaw, Ind., that replicates vintage equipment for memorabilia collectors and movie props, is believed to be the last place one can find a single-bar facemask.
Historic Helmets owner Curtis Worrell noted he used to sell period single-bar masks at auctions and on eBay for more than $1,000. That prompted Worrell and his late partner, Jim Parker, to invest $20,000 into building a facemask-making machine to satisfy the market. They now retail for $29.99.
The reason there's a demand: Nostalgia is cool.
"We got a call about three years ago from Chad Johnson of the Bengals, and he went into a rap about how he wanted us to send in these old-time facemasks to him so he could wear one every week," Parker said in an interview last summer. "Someone prevented him from doing that. He wasn't allowed to wear it, but he sure tried."
Worrell said quarterback Doug Flutie, who fancied himself an emergency kicker and was the last player to convert a dropkick in a game, also ordered some minimalist masks.
Louisiana State kept a throwback, one-bar helmet on the sidelines during its national championship run in 2003. The Tigers would touch it before taking the field. Now the helmet's in the LSU hall of fame.
"Some of these players like the old-time flavor, the blood-and-guts type approach," Parker said. "The old-time nostalgia is embedded in these players. They have so much character to them.
"It's reflective of a certain type of player, a certain era. You sacrificed yourself."
Yepremian can attest to that. He was the last NFL player to go sans facemask because even one bar made him feel "claustrophobic," he said. That was with the Detroit Lions in 1966, and in the fourth game Green Bay Packers enforcer Ray Nitschke detonated him.
"I would wake up every morning with blood in my mouth," Yepremian said. "I learned my lesson, and I adapted in 1967 and stayed with [the single-bar facemask]."
Theismann liked the one-bar facemask because it helped ensure clean handoffs. But it also made him feel like a swashbuckler.
"It was challenging the opponents," Theismann said. "It was somewhat daring. It was out of the norm. The facemask became a devil-may-care symbol for me. How far can you push the envelope?
"Now they do everything they can to protect the pretty boy faces. Those of us that lost teeth or broke our noses ... I call them character injuries."
Theismann said he suffered seven broken noses when he played, but considered switching to a cage only once, when he lost 3 1/2 teeth on a sack by New York Giants linebacker Byron Hunt in 1982.
"If a guy wants to get his nose busted, so what?" Monica said of the NFL's facemask policy. "I liked guys wearing it because I like the old stuff, the throwback stuff. It's getting so far from that it's not even funny.
"It really is the end of an era. It's sort of depressing."