The NFL playoffs continue this weekend with Kurt Warner leading the high-scoring Arizona Cardinals into New Orleans for a showdown with the Saints. There is speculation that a loss could mark the final game of Warner's career, not for lack of ability (he threw for five touchdowns last week against the Packers), but because of his concern about sustaining another concussion like the one that sidelined him earlier this season.
While the NFL introduced new rules this season requiring players who exhibit any significant symptoms of a concussion to be removed from a game or practice, players have long taken protecting their noggins into their own hands. From oversized helmets and Velcro-affixed padding to facemasks and ball-repelling throat protectors, here are 10 interesting ways that athletes through the years have protected their most valuable assets "“ their heads.
1. Mark Kelso's Pro Cap
Longtime Buffalo Bills trainer Eddie Abramoski had watched safety Mark Kelso get knocked silly one too many times, so he took action. In 1989, Abramoski approached Kelso with a Pro Cap, a half-inch of rubberized padding that fit over a standard helmet and was attached with Velcro. The device was designed by Bert Strauss of Protective Sports Equipment in Erie, Pa., where Abramoski was once a high school football standout. Teammates dubbed Kelso "The Great Gazoo," but the teasing was a small price to pay for the protection the Pro Cap offered. The creators of the device claimed that the Pro Cap reduced the chances of a recurring head injury from 65 percent to 3 percent. "The biggest obstacle is the aesthetics," said Kelso, who credited the Pro Cap with prolonging his career. "I think guys just don't want to wear it because it looks so different." At least two other NFL players, Indianapolis Colts lineman Randy Dixon and San Francisco 49ers lineman Steve Wallace, also wore the Pro Cap. "Everyone laughs at me," said Wallace, who started wearing one after suffering his fifth concussion. "But what's more important, your ego or being able to play with your kids with a clear head after your career is over? I'll never play again without it."
2. David Wright's Jumbo Helmet
Three weeks after being beaned in the head by a Matt Cain fastball last season, New York Mets third baseman Wright returned to the lineup sporting the Rawlings S100, an oversized helmet that can withstand the impact of a 100 mph fastball. Wright resembled a life-size bobblehead doll and was the object of ridicule both within and outside the Mets' clubhouse before ditching the helmet after two games. "It's just not comfortable," he told reporters. In his first game with his regular helmet since coming off the disabled list, Wright had three hits. Rawlings delivered a trial shipment of the S100s to every major league team last September, but players, citing the helmets' bulky feel and goofy look, have been hesitant to make the switch. Angels outfielder Torii Hunter refers to them as "Gazoo helmets," a reference to the Flintstones character, while Marlins catcher John Baker is waiting for Rawlings or another company to improve on the S100's design. "If we could put a man on the moon 40 years ago, we can put a transmitter on Mars and I can watch a movie on my little iPod, we could probably make a thinner helmet that can protect up to a 100-mph fastball," Baker told the Palm Beach Post.
3. Ryan Sadowski's Plastic Cap Insert
When veteran Randy Johnson went on the disabled list with an elbow injury last season, it opened the door for San Francisco Giants rookie Ryan Sadowski to make his major league debut after a remarkable trip through the minor leagues. In 2003, while pitching for the Giants' short-season minor league team, Sadowski began experiencing headaches. He didn't think much of them at first, but after becoming extremely sick a few months later, he had an MRI and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma. Sadowski had emergency surgery and doctors told him that he would probably never throw again. Instead, he resumed pitching in 2004. The Giants wanted Sadowski to wear a skullcap to protect his noggin when he returned, but the right-hander had a more creative solution. Sadowski starched one of his caps and provided it to a plastic manufacturer, which produced a mold and a custom plastic insert for Sadowski to place inside his regular caps., "It's kind of shaped like a salad bowl," he told the San Jose Mercury News last year. Sadowski won his first two starts before struggling and being sent back down to the minors.
4. Jacques Plante's Goalie Mask
In 1959, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante was hit in the face by a shot in the first period of a game at Madison Square Garden. The game was delayed 20 minutes while Plante received seven stitches to close the wound. He returned to the game wearing a fiberglass mask, which he had used in practice but had never worn in a game. The decision sparked controversy and criticism from some of hockey's traditionalists. Muzz Patrick, the Rangers' general manager, told the New York Times, "The use of a mask takes something from the fans. They want to see the man, particularly the female fans." A few years before Plante started wearing his mask, Rangers goalie Gump Worsley had considered the idea. Worsley purchased a mask, but his coach, Phil Watson, wouldn't let him wear it. "Who wants a good-looking goalie?" Watson said. By 1974, perhaps to the dismay of the league's female fans, all goalies were wearing masks.
5. Steve Yeager's Throat Protector
Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager is remembered for a number of things, and his ability to hit a baseball is not one of them. Yeager's cousin, Chuck, was widely considered the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Steve Yeager, who was a .228 hitter in 15 major league seasons, posed nude for Playgirl in 1982. He appeared in Major League, Major League II, and Major League: Back to the Minors. He won the 1981 World Series MVP award. Oh, and he almost died in the on-deck circle. In 1976, shards from Bill Russell's broken bat tore a hole a half-inch deep in Yeager's neck, piercing his esophagus. Yeager underwent emergency surgery and made a full recovery. Shortly after the incident, Dodgers trainer Bill Buhler, who was known as Dr. Fix-It throughout his 44 years in baseball, invented and patented a throat protector that hung from the catcher's mask. While it wouldn't protect him in the on-deck circle, Yeager began wearing the throat protector behind the plate and it soon became a staple piece of equipment for both catchers and umpires.
6. Charlie O'Brien's Hockey-Style Cather's Mask
Thirteen years after Yeager retired and more than 100 years since Harvard's Jim Tyng introduced the catcher's mask to baseball, journeyman catcher Charlie O'Brien, who was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays at the time, began working with Van Velden Mask Inc. to design a hockey-style catcher's mask that would provide greater protection against foul-tipped balls. Major League Baseball approved the masks, but prohibited the use of personalized logos and designs like the ones that had become popular among NHL goalies. When O'Brien debuted the mask in Toronto, the Jumbotron at SkyDome displayed images from Friday the 13th, The Mask, and Silence of the Lambs. Hockey-style catcher masks remain popular today.
7. John Olerud's Helmet
After his junior season at Washington State, John Olerud underwent a six-hour surgery to remove an aneurysm at the base of his brain. Cougars head coach Bobo Brayton suggested that Olerud, who was named college player of the year as a sophomore, wear a helmet in the field during his senior season. Brayton had worn a helmet while coaching after he was drilled in the head by a line drive while throwing batting practice in 1959. "You know when (NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk) got his neck cut? One of the things he said in an interview is that the little things that used to bother him don't bother him any more," Olerud told the Spokesman-Review in 1989. "Well, the little things that used to get on my nerves just don't any more." Olerud, a lifetime .295 hitter, wore a flapless helmet in the field throughout his 17-year career.
8. Dave Parker's Hockey and Football Masks
In 1978, Pittsburgh Pirates great Dave Parker fractured his jaw and cheekbone in a home plate collision with Mets catcher John Stearns. Parker missed 11 games before returning to the lineup with some unique headgear to protect his swollen face. Parker wore a hockey goalie's mask painted black and yellow during batting practice and as a pinch-hitter in his first game back. While the hockey mask was intimidating, it limited Parker's ability to see pitches, so he turned to Pittsburgh Steelers equipment manager Tony Parisi to help design him a better form of protection. Parisi came up with several solutions, including a baseball helmet with a football-style two-bar faceguard. Paul Lukas, ESPN contributor and founder of the Uni Watch blog, captured the fascinating history of Parker's various masks in an article last year. Parker stopped wearing facial protection in 1979. Nearly 30 years earlier, the Pirates, under the instruction of general manager Branch Rickey, were the first team to wear helmets.
9. Gerry Cheevers' Stitch Mask
After being hit in the mask by a puck during practice in 1968, Boston Bruins Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers asked team trainer John Forristall to draw stitch marks on his mask where he had been hit. The comical idea continued that season and Cheevers' white mask was soon full of stitch marks. Cheevers began each season with a fresh canvas for Forristall's stitches and his unique design helped launch the tradition of decorated goalie masks that continues today. "Kids used to write me and say, "˜How do I get a mask like that?'" Cheevers recalled in a 2007 interview. "I'd say, "˜Send me $100 and I'll send you a Magic Marker."
10. Richard Hamilton's Facemask
Detroit Pistons guard Richard Hamilton began wearing a clear plastic facemask in March 2004 after having his nose broken twice during the season. While Hamilton hated the mask at first, he gradually became more comfortable with it and led the Pistons in playoff scoring en route to an NBA title. Hamilton had no intentions of wearing the mask in 2005, but resumed wearing it early in the season and has sported it ever since. Hamilton's mask was designed by orthotist Jerry McHale, who created a clear facemask for former Pistons "Bad Boy" Bill Laimbeer in 1990 after he suffered an orbital fracture, and a facemask for Kobe Bryant while the Lakers guard was in high school.