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The Odd History of Facemask-Free Football Magazine Cover Photos

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Longtime reader Kurt Rozek recently came across this 1977 copy of Pro! magazine with Bucs running back Ricky Bell on the cover. The uni-notable thing, of course, is that Bell wasn’t wearing a facemask when he posed for the cover photo, which seems pretty bizarre for 1977. That ended up sending me down a fun rabbit hole, which I’m going to discuss with you today.

So: Back in the 1940s and ’50s, it was common for football players to be depicted on magazine covers wearing helmets but not facemasks, because most players didn’t yet wear facemasks. These were usually posed photos, not game shots. Here are some examples:

Charley Trippi, 1947
Doak Walker, 1948
Leon Heath, 1950
Jim Swink, 1956
Bobby Cox, 1957

By the 1960s, the vast majority of pro and college players had started wearing facemasks. But some magazines continued to use maskless pics for their covers. I’ve always assumed that this was because they wanted to show the players’ faces without any obstructions, although I don’t know that for a fact. As a simple example: Packers star Paul Hornung always wore a mask when playing for Green Bay, but here he is on the cover of Sport magazine in 1963:

Similarly, Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty was routinely wearing a facemask on the field by 1966, but not in this 1967 cover photo:

A year later, Florida running back Larry Smith got the same treatment — masked on the field but not on the magazine cover:

To be sure, not every sports magazine was going with the maskless cover pics at this point, but some of them were — especially the annual Street & Smith college football guides. But surely they must have started showing facemasks in the 1970s, right? Nope! Check out these covers from 1970 through 1976:

So when Pro! ran that Ricky Bell cover photo in 1977, I’m pretty sure they were consciously referencing and mimicking the Street & Smith style.

And how long did S&S keeping using that style? I was surprised to discover that they kept using it through the rest of the 1970s:

But when the calendar turned into the 1980s, S&S finally abandoned the posed cover pics and switched to using game photos, which of course showed the players wearing masks. The end of an era, you might say:

Update: Reader/commenter Will L. reports that Street & Smith ran some retro covers in 2007, complete with mask-free helmets:


I really enjoyed researching this piece. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

(Big props to Kurt Rozek for getting me started on this one with that Ricky Bell cover shot.)



Get Ready for the NBA Season Preview

The NBA regular season begins one week from today, which means it’s almost time for the annual Uni Watch NBA Season Preview, your go-to guide for all of this season’s new uniforms, logos, leaks (so many of them!), court designs, and more.

The NBA Season Preview will be published on Thursday. You can get it in your in-box that morning by becoming a paid subscriber to my Substack.

Speaking of which: My Substack just celebrated its first anniversary. I had some thoughts on that here. (Don’t worry, it’s not paywalled.)


Can of the Day

As you may recall, I collect these, but I hadn’t seen this particular design before until it popped up yesterday on eBay. I love how the first hyphen is embedded in the “M.”

Comments (21)

    “…Ricky Williams cover photo in 1977…” should be “…Ricky Bell cover photo in 1977…”

    It does seem intuitively to be about featuring the face, sort of like how Hollywood space and deep-diving suits always have lights on the inside of the helmet illuminating the actor’s face. And personally, I find myself much more compelled by the posed portraits than by most game action shots.

    Fun article on the missing face masks. I’ve noticed it many times and never thought of doing an article. My bad.

    It’s amazing how much better Charley Trippi’s simple Chicago Cardinals uniform looks compared to the garbage that organization has worn for the past couple decades.

    And now I really want to read that Ty Cobb article from 1948 had to say, which was twenty years after he retired.

    “In my day, we played for the love of the game. For the guys today, it’s just a job. They are in it for the money.”

    Or something like that, probably. And also, “I wasn’t that mean.”

    The modern football helmets from 2007 without the face mask look very odd, but now I understand why Street and Smith had the players pose like that. Very nice article.

    Question: did they remove face masks for shot or were they helmets sans masks. It would be interesting to see if the mask less helmets are still around.

    All helmets start out as “ mask less.” The player assures the proper size helmet for his head, then the equipment mgr attaches the proper face mask and chin strap (there are various types of these, too.

    This reminds me of TV and movies when people are driving in a car and from certain camera angles the rear view mirror magically disappears from the windshield.

    I don’t know if I’d call this peak Uni Watch, but it’s definitely the kind of interesting piece that keeps me reading the column. Nice piece.

    As a kid, I always looked forward to Street and Smith’s annuals. I always wondered why these certain players were not wearing a facemask and why it was always the really good players that didn’t wear masks. It is always goofy being a kid.

    I remember getting that Ricky Bell issue of Pro at an Oilers game when I was a kid. I kept it as a souvenir for years.

    The AD at our high school got a few maskless helmets from a company that was trying to sell him football equipment back in the early 70s — he gave them to some seniors that rode motorcycles to school. Class of ’73 kind of had a nice Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider vibe going on for a bit.

    I love the weekly review because I often don’t have time to keep up with everything uni-related. I had no clue Uni Watch did an entire article on my Ricky Bell cover discovery until it was pointed out to me by Paul. So, I’m obviously a huge proponent of this week-in-review recap.

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