Sports Legend Revealed: Did the inventor of basketball, James Naismith, also invent the football helmet?

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

FOOTBALL LEGEND: Did the inventor of basketball, James Naismith, also invent the football helmet?

STATUS: A Lot of Truth to it, but I Lean False Overall.

The world of collegiate sports in the late 19th Century was practically like the Wild Wild West, with the fast and loose invention (and application) of rules as the games that we now know today were first coming into existence. During a time when sports like football and basketball were in their infancy, the games played would barely be recognizable to us today. As a result, the last decade or so of the 19th Century was a Golden Age for sports innovators. Collegiate athletics were going through a boom period and they needed people to come up with sports to meet the growing demand.


One of the most famous sports innovators is Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. Naismith was an Instructor in Physical Education at the Young Men’s Christian Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts when he invented basketball. Obviously, though, if Naismith was an instructor before he invented basketball, he must have been involved in other sports. One such sport that Naismith was heavily involved in was football, which itself was still in the early years of making its transition from rugby to its own unique sport.

This leads to a great story about the early days of football and Naismith, which is specifically; did James Naismith also invent the football helmet?

The answer is open to interpretation - so read on to learn the facts and see if you agree with my conclusion!

James Naismith was born in Almonte, Ontario in 1861 (his parents had moved to Canada from Scotland a decade earlier). His parents died when he only nine years old and he was raised by his grandmother and an uncle, Peter. He enrolled in McGill University in Montreal in 1883 and was a star athlete at the school. Upon graduation in 1887, he entered the Seminary at McGill. During this time, he worked as an Instructor of Physical Education. He played and taught football, rugby, lacrosse and gymnastics while at McGill. Towards the end of his time at the Seminary, Naismith began to question his impending role as a minister. He was a very religious man, but he began to feel as though he could have a greater impact on the lives of young people as a physical education instructor who would deal with new people every year rather than a minister at a church who would have the same basic constituency.

After grappling with this decision for awhile, he ultimately decided to pursue a career in physical education over the ministry. In 1890, he moved to Springfield College in Massachusetts (then called the Young Men’s Christian Training School) to complete his masters in physical education. It was here that he met Amos Alonzo Stagg, who was also pursuing his Masters at the Young Men’s Christian Training School. Stagg was a pioneer in the development of football, becoming an inaugural member of the College Football Hall of Fame, but also, through his relationship with Naismith, was also a pioneer in the development of basketball, becoming an inaugural member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, as well! It is pretty amazing to consider that Stagg and Naismith, two of the most notable sports pioneers of the 19th Century, both happened to attend the same school in the same year. Not only that, but both men were former divinity students!

Stagg attended Yale University, where he played football (he was a member of the very first All-America football team in 1889) and studied to be a minister. Like Naismith, though, he determined that his future was as a physical instructor, not as a spiritual one. Stagg, a dominant baseball player at Yale, also turned down a job pitching for the New York Giants to pursue a career in teaching. Both Stagg and Naismith found a kindred spirit in the Dean of the Physical Education Department at the Young Men’s Christian Training School, Dr. Luther Gulick. All three men were in their 20s at the time, and Gulick was very supportive in giving them each the freedom to innovate and invent sports while at the school. Both Naismith and Stagg would join the school as instructors in 1891 after completing their studies (both finishing a two-year program in a single year).

Likely inspired by Stagg’s presence at the school, Gulick suggested that they form the school’s first football team, with Stagg as the head coach (around this time, Stagg also became the first paid football coach, as he would coach a secondary school once a week on top of coaching the Young Men’s Christian Training School). Thirteen students were chosen to play on the inaugural team from the fifty-seven members of the student population, and Naismith was one of them. He played center, just like he had played at McGill. The team became known as ‘Stagg’s Stubby Christians,’ because while they were a good deal less accomplished than Yale, Harvard and all the Eastern ‘powerhouses’ of the time, they competed against them all and played them tough. It was during this time that the story of Nasimith’s football helmet invention came into play.

As you might imagine, playing center for a team that is constantly overmatched by its opponents is, to say the least, painful. Naismith would be repeatedly brutalized. Constant blows to the head gave him a perichondrial hematoma, better known as ‘cauliflower ear.’ Basically, his ear swelled up due to all the blows to the head. It was so bad that years later his bruised ear was actually listed on his passport as an identifying feature!! Things took a turn for the worse when, after getting kicked in the face during one game, Naismith had short term memory loss, not recognizing anyone around him. After recovering, Naismith had to think of some way to help himself out of this situation. His solution was, with the help of his girlfriend, Maude (who later became his wife), to use some pieces of flannel as ear muffs. They were basically effective. Later on, Naismith would use pieces of leather for the muffs.

So, the question becomes - is that a football helmet?

The next question is - did people start using Naismith’s invention (which came around 1891)?

To the first question, I don’t know if I would call it a helmet, and to the second, no, they really did not.

Similarly, U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman Joseph M. Reeves was told that if he received another blow to the head he would die (death is often a good motivator to invent protective measures), so Reeves went to a local blacksmith to get a contraption made out of moleskin that would allow him to compete in the 1893 Army/Navy Game. It was basically a cap (Reeves would later use the idea for aviators caps during the early 20th Century).

Is Reeves, then, our winner?

Again, like Naismith, I don’t know if what he wore would be considered a “helmet,” and once again, no one started wearing caps like Reeves, so I’d be hard pressed to credit him with starting something when it appears more like a one-time/one-person situation.

Finally, George Barclay of Lafayette College decided in 1896 that he did not want to risk getting injured (more specifically, he did not want cauliflower ears), so he went to a local harness maker and had him build him a harness for his head (in fact, that’s what they called them at the time - a ‘head harness’) made out of three thick pieces of leather fastened together along with a strap that you would wear around your chin.

Barclay seems to be the ‘winner,’ as his device is pretty clearly a helmet and his device actually began to be adopted by other players until it became a common piece of equipment by the end of the decade (although for decades some players chose to play without helmets for some odd reason). In fact, the “head harness” was in use all the way up to the 1910s (with some minor changes, like ear flaps being added), when the next major progression in helmets was made by University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke, who came up with the idea of making a helmet that would have protection in-between the helmet and the player’s skull (the notion being to ‘cradle’ the player’s head rather than allowing direct impact). Besides the addition of plastic and face guards since then (and making the helmets sturdier), that’s basically the football helmet used to this day.

So what do you think? Would you credit Naismith as the inventor of the football helmet? It is worth noting that the Naismith Museum specifically does not credit Naismith with creating the football helmet, and they provide a pretty detailed biography of his life.

Later in 1891, Naismith, under ‘orders’ from Dean Gulick to come up with a new game that could be played indoors, invented the game of basketball (Stagg would help develop the game, specifically inventing the idea of it being a five-player game, and in fact, Stagg would play in the first public exhibition of basketball in 1892 with the students of the Young Men’s Christian Training School playing against the instructors - Stagg would score the only bucket for the instructors in a 5-1 loss). ‘Inventor of basketball’ is already a sizable legacy, but it is one that I do not believe expands to include ‘inventor of the football helmet.’

Thanks to Rob Rains and Hellen Carpenter’s excellent James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball for a lot of the information used for this piece! And thanks to the Naismith Museum!

--Brian Cronin

Be sure to check out my Sports Legends Revealed for more sports legends! For other legends involving famous sports creations and inventions, check out...

Who first started calling football ‘soccer’?

Who invented the Olympic Torch Relay?

Which baseball team first began using uniform numbers?

Did Everett Case create the ACC Tournament?

Who created the Olympic flag with the rings on it?

In addition, I have archives of all the past legends featured on the site in the categories of: Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey, the Olympics and Soccer/Football!

Also be sure to check out my Entertainment Legends Revealed for legends about the worlds of TV, Movies, Music and more!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is And please buy my book, ‘Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! here.