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A Thing Called Tradition


Whenever a debate creeps up about the Redskins’ uniforms, many people trot out the word “tradition” in defense of the current outfit. It’s not an unreasonable position; while wearing more or less the same uniform the team sports today, the Redskins experienced the greatest ten-year stretch in team history from 1982 to 1991. The decade produced seven playoff appearances, a .704 winning percentage and most importantly, three NFL championships1, all while wearing more or less the same uniform the team sports today. And while it’s foolish to suggest that a change in the uniform will make the team better or worse, I do think there is something to be said for wearing the same uniforms that brought you your greatest spoils.

With that being said, the idea that the Redskins have always worn their current uniform is simply wrong. And it’s not just wrong in the sense that way back in 1937 they wore something slightly different; the Redskins and did not adopt the current uniform set until 1979. The first half of our franchise’s history didn’t involve the uniform we know today.

I’m not going to sort through every uniform alteration and shirt/pant combination, but I will run through the Redskins’ helmet history. And even for a team that’s been around for over 70 years, we’ve gone through a lot of them:

1937-1952: Leather Helmets

When the Redskins first arrived in Washington in 1937, players weren’t wearing hard-shelled helmets, but rather leather. The question is if these leather helmets were ever painted a uniform color. The fact that all the photos from this era are black and white, combined with the overall scarcity of action shots, makes this nearly impossible to determine. Here is what little we do know: Helmet Hut2 has this yellow and black game-worn helmet from 1939, and in this painting, undoubtedly based on the famous photograph from the 1942 NFL Championship game, the helmet is depicted as burgundy.

I’m not going to go crazy trying to determine each change during the leather helmet era, but if you have any additional information on leather helmets worn by the Redskins, please shoot me an e-mail at mcsher55@gmail.com.

1952-1954: Gold Helmet, Burgundy Stripe

The first hard-shelled helmets were used in 1952, a true gold with a burgundy stripe. 1952 was Sammy Baugh’s final season in football, and it was this helmet he wore. Here Baugh is pictured autographing a replica of that 1952 design. The design was used through 1954.

1954-1956: Cardinal Helmet; Yellow Stripe

At some point in the 1954 season, the team switched to a cardinal helmet with a yellow stripe. It’s interesting that this color scheme would be quickly abandoned, yet is pretty close to the colors the team wears today. The design lasted through 1956.

1957-1958: The Notre Dame Helmet

In 1957, the team returned to the gold helmet, but without the burgundy stripe. For better or worse, the result was a helmet identical to Notre Dame’s. The design was worn late into the 1958 season.

1958-1964: The Feather Helmet

At the end of the 1958 season, the team introduced the first emblem, a feather running up the back of the helmet. It lasted through 1964, but in a couple of slightly different incarnations. The helmet was initially and ultimately burgundy, yet a game-worn helmet from 1961 indicates it was once cardinal. In the 1963 and 1964, numbers were placed on the back of the helmet.

1965-1969: The Spear Helmet

In 1965, the feather was replaced with a spear, again on a burgundy helmet. Following the 1968 season, Vince Lombardi came out of retirement to run the Redskins. Lombardi’s brother-in-law worked for Rawlings, so the Redskins switched uniform providers. When the uniforms arrived, they were the wrong color – a lighter, cardinal red instead of the burgundy. Since it would have been a real hassle to order new uniforms, the helmets were painted to reflect the color change. Tragically3, the color change stuck and the Redskins never returned to burgundy. You can see the difference in this picture of Sonny Jurgensen posing with replicas of every helmet he ever wore4.

1970-1971: The Yellow Lombardi Helmet

Hoping to remodel the franchise in the image of his powerful Packer squads, Vince Lombardi redesigned the uniforms to match, introducing a yellow helmet. Unfortunately, Lombardi fell ill with colon cancer and passed away before the start of the 1970 season. He never got to see his creation in action.

1972: The Indian Head Helmet

In 1972, the Redskins ditched the yellow for the helmet we know today. The changes throughout the years have been minor: In 1978, the facemask was changed from gray to gold. In 1982 (the season that yielded Super Bowl XVII), the logo featured curled feathers rather than the traditional straight feathers. The team returned to the straight-feather look in 1983, and other than the occasional throwbacks (worn in 1994, 2002 and 2007), the helmet has since remained unchanged. It should be noted that while the 2002 and 2007 designs are true replicas of helmets from the past, the 1994 helmet was not. For the NFL’s 75th anniversary, all NFL teams wore replicas of their original uniforms. Since the 1937 Redskins didn’t have a hard-shelled helmet, the team just removed the logos from the regular helmet, making this “throwback” a unique helmet unto itself.

And there you have it. Seven5 helmets in less than 60 years. So the next time you bristle at the suggestion of a uniform change, just remember that the real Redskins tradition is one of change.

***

1 For comparison, the second best ten-year stretch in Redskins’ history was 1937-1946, which produced five playoff appearances, a winning percentage of .701* and two NFL championships. It should be noted that the .701 winning percentage is calculated by counting ties as a half win and a half loss, standard practice today. But before 1972, the NFL didn’t count ties at all when calculating winning percentage. Using the old method, the winning percentage would be .713, a franchise best.

2 It’s an awesome resource, and one that you’ll find I abuse in this blog entry. The official store is a little lacking in the NFL department, but their college section and World Football League sections is incredible, if a bit pricy.

3 It’s just my opinion, but I think it’s a travesty that the Redskins don’t wear burgundy and gold.

4 Don’t be fooled by the order he has them in. The cardinal spear was worn after the burgundy spear.

5 Depending on how you want to count the leather helmets, the minor alterations and the throwbacks, the number could be as high as 20 over the team’s history:

1: Plain leather
2: Yellow leather
3: Burgundy leather
4: Gold helmet, burgundy stripe
5: Cardinal helmet, yellow stripe
6: Notre Dame helmet
7: Burgundy Feather
8: Cardinal Feather
9: Burgundy Feather, again
10: Burgundy Feather with numbers
11: Burgundy Spear
12: Red Spear
13: Lombardi Yellow
14: Indian Head, gray facemask
15: Indian Head, yellow facemask
16: Curled feathers
17: Indian Head, yellow facemask, again
18: 1994 Throwback
19: 2002 Throwback
20: 2007 Throwback

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