SEPTEMBER 19, 2020


High school football started this weekend. It may be the strangest beginning of any season in the history of the sport. From social distancing to the wearing of masks, there's plenty of room for discussion. How it will turn out is anyone's guess.


That said, high school football (and football in general) has gone through some major shifts over the years. I personally lived through three of these changes that were a bit controversial at the time. I played high school football back in 1961-1964 at Flint St. Michael high school. Contrary to popular opinion, Fred Flintstone was not a teammate. 


Back in those days, a somewhat controversial new innovation was being debuted on football helmets – the face guard. In the late 1950s, some helmets were being fitted with a single bar about the width of your index finger. The intent, obviously, was to prevent “ eyes, bloody noses, and swollen lips.”  


There was an argument against these. With this “massive” bar in front of your face, how could anyone see? Backs and ends complained. Then a double bar came into being for linemen. The reasoning was that they needed more protection and they didn't need to see anything anyway. 


Luckily, by the time I started playing football at St. Mike's, all our helmets had face guards. “By 1962, facemasks were worn by every player in the game. Though the single bar face mask was an important innovation, it was soon replaced by increasingly complex styles of face protection.” Today, every player has a cage on their helmet and thinks nothing of it. (


The second football innovation I lived through had to do with water. I say “lived” because the prevailing “knowledge” of the time could have been deadly. The theory was that drinking water during practices and games was bad for you. You were sweating so you were losing salt. The answer? Salt tablets.


“Coaches believed water was bad for players and it slowed them down. They knew that a lot of marathon runners who finished first or up in front were very dehydrated, so they thought it must be better to be dehydrated.” An athletic trainer at the time noted: “We had salt pills in the locker room and gave them away like candy. We didn’t know then that the pills just sat in the player’s gut and it was more like feeding them BB’s than candy. How crazy is that! It’s amazing we didn’t kill people.”


Then around 1965, Gatorade came onto the scene. Hydration came to the forefront. The shift from salt tablets to sports drinks began. Experts were “...instructing on not using salt tablets and supporting their recommendations with research.”

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Today, hydration breaks are commonplace in every sport. During Michigan high school football games there are designated stoppages so players can have a drink. No one thinks anything about this and no salt tablets are in sight. 


The third event I experienced was the introduction of mouthguards. Before mouthguards, “ injuries were responsible for around 24-50 percent of all American football injuries. By 1960 the American Dental Association recommended the use of latex mouthguards in all contact sports and by 1962 all high school football players in the U.S. were required to wear the mouthguards.” (


I was a Junior Varsity player in 1962 when the mouthguard mandate went into effect. However, no sporting goods companies sold ready-made mouthguards. You had to go to your dentist and have one custom made (at considerable time and expense). 


The dentist would make an impression of your teeth and use that mold to create a mouthguard. Needless to say, the variations that first season were endless. When we showed up for our first practice that year every player's mouthguard was different. There was even one guy with a yellow one to which his dentist had added banana flavoring. 


Mine was typical. It had uppers and lowers extending all the way to my back teeth. It also covered the entire roof of my mouth. You might guess that players complained that they were gagging and could not breathe. 


After that first practice we all went home and did some modifications. I removed the lowers, shortened the uppers and cut away the piece that covered the roof of my mouth. I can attest every other player did likewise. 


By the next season, the sporting goods stores offered many different styles of premade mouthguards that were inexpensive and more comfortable. Now, mouthguards are mainstream and no one thinks anything about them. 


My point? Things change and people are pretty good at adapting to the circumstances with which they are faced. We'll all get through this period in history. Who knows, we may even learn something in the process. 


Jim Neff is a local columnist. Read Neff Zone columns online at



Vintage Football Helmet -- Flint St. Michael High School