In this “Learning from InvENtors” post, we’re taking a look at how John T. Riddell started a revolution by solving one problem.
John Tate Riddell had a simple goal in mind when he started his company – to make sporting equipment safer, better and easier to use for athletes.
John T. Riddell was born in Georgetown, Michigan in October 1885. He graduated “Cum Laude” from Bethany College in 1909 and did graduate work at Yale, Northwestern and the University of Chicago.
From the years of 1913 through 1927, he taught mathematics and was Head Football Coach and Athletic Director at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. It was during this time Riddell invented and developed the removable cleat.
Like many well-known inventions, Riddell created the removable cleat to solve a problem.
In those years, football shoes were equipped with leather cleats. At the time, football cleats were made of leather and nailed to the sole of the shoe. Changing cleats due to inclement weather required the services of a cobbler to have longer “mud cleats” installed. Unfortunately, because Northwestern University used the same cobbler as Evanston Township High School, Evanston’s football shoes were often not finished by game time.
Riddell knew his idea would solve this problem for everyone. Lacking the funding to produce them himself, Riddell had his shoes manufactured by the J.P. Smith Shoe Company, and he and his wife installed the posts and cleats in the evenings. He continued to teach, coach and produce his shoes until 1927, when, with the popularity of his shoes growing, he left his “day job” and devoted his entire effort to producing shoes.
John T. Riddell, Inc. was formed in February 1929. The company’s mission was to create products that were innovative, provided protection and optimized performance.
The removable cleat was just one of many Riddell “firsts” that revolutionized the sporting equipment landscape. Soon after incorporating, baseball and track shoes were added to the removable cleat line.
In 1939, Riddell had another lightbulb moment. He invented and perfected the first plastic suspension helmet. He intended to replace the soft leather helmet then used with a helmet consisting of a had plastic shell containing his webbed suspension, which would absorb and attenuate impact to the head sustained during a football game. Unfortunately, plastic became unavailable during World War II, and he was unable to produce the helmet.
Invented for the football field, the US Government quickly saw its benefit for protecting troops in World War II. Riddell granted the government a license to use his suspension system in the production of military helmets and liners. Used in the greatest number of helmets ever produced, millions of Allied troops wore Riddell’s suspension in combat.
Gerry Morgan, who later became the firm’s chairman, told the Chicago Tribune in 1976, “Every GI who went through training wore one, and we gave it [the patent] to the government for what I regret was a ridiculously low fee.”
Sadly, Riddell never lived to see his helmet become the most popular helmet ever made. He died on July 3, 1945. Despite his death, his company was successful marketing his suspension helmet, beginning in 1946 with the RT-2 model.
Through the early years of Riddell’s company, the majority of its product development and attention was in the areas of athletic shoes and protective helmets. The popularity of the Riddell helmets has steadily increased since its introduction in 1946.
Riddell began selling helmets to professional football teams shortly after World War II and by 1949, had the largest share of the pro market. Morgan traveled with the pro teams for several seasons, designing, improvising and adjusting new equipment ideas.
By 1950, Riddell’s company had perfected the one-piece helmet.
“We finally got the right material, a compound of rubber and plastic that would take all the stress,” Morgan said. It also “was tough enough to withstand temperature changes.” Morgan went on to call the human head “the damnedest thing to fit. It comes in all shape and sizes –eggheads, square heads, flat heads, lopsided heads. This head isn’t round, it’s elongated, especially larger heads.”
In 1951, all NFL players were maskless until the Cleveland Brown’s home game against the 49ers where Otto Graham took an elbow to the face, causing a major cut to the side of his mouth. His coach, Paul Brown, had a lucite prototype (created by Morgan) put on Otto’s helmet by the team equipment manager. Otto insisted on playing the second half. Paul Brown owned the patent for the face mask made by Riddell and use his profits to create the Cincinnati Bengals.
In 1963, The TAK-29 was the first helmet to use air inflation for fitting the helmet snug to the head. But with just one air valve at the base of the helmet, the custom fit only accommodated the player’s neck size.
By 1975, Riddell was unique among sporting equipment manufacturers in making only two products: helmets and shoes. It earned close to $1 million that year on revenues of about 9.9 million. By the mid-1970s, the company was furnishing all NFL teams with helmets with the exception of the New England Patriots. The company’s 200 employees produced 250,000 helmets in 1975, at prices ranging from $20 to $40. This was double the previous year’s output due to a federal legislation setting standards for helmet durability and reliability.
In 1977, Riddell introduced a stainless steel face mask that offered greater bend resistance that prevented helmet breakage at the drill holes. Even once competitors started producing the same technology, Riddell’s still maintained the lightest weight in the market.
In 1992, Riddell introduced the VSR Series of football helmets, designed with additional inflation points to provide players with a more customized fit. VSR, or “Variable Size Range,” dominated the football landscape during it’s time, at one time used by 60 percent of the NFL.
In 2002, the Riddell Revolution, or “Revo,” football helmet was designed with the intent of reducing the risk of concussion. This helmet was the first major innovation in football helmets in 25 years.
- 1922 – First Removable Cleats
- 1929 – First Action Last
- 1939 – First Plastic Helmet
- 1939 – First Web Suspension
- 1940 – First Chin Strap worn on chin
- 1940 – First Low-Cut football shoes
- 1940 – First Plastic Facemask
- 1951 – First Clear Bar Guard
- 1957 – First Tubular Bar Guard
- 1962 – First Nose Protector – U Guard
- 1963 – First Aero Cells in a Helmet
- 1969 – First Microfit Helmet
- 1973 – First Air Cushion Helmet
- 1974 – First Professionally Tested Youth Helmet Interior System
- 1977 – First Ripple Sole Soccer Shoe
- 1977 – First Stainless Steel Facemasks
- 1981 – First Air Cushioned Engineered Helmet
- 1989 – First X-Wide Cantilever
- 1989 – Protective Valve Cap System
- 1989 – First Official Supplier of Helmets and Pads to the National Football League
- 1990 – First Air Impact System
- 1990 – First Chambered Air Transfer System
- 1990 – First Official Supplier of Helmets and Pads to the World Football League
- 1991 – First Self-Contained Inflation Helmet
- 1994 – Riddell Acquires SharCo
- 2001 – Riddell introduces The Revolution TM football helmet
- 2004 – Riddell announces launch of Riddell Sideline Response System, a new technology that combines a real-time, on- field head impact telemetry system (HIT System), team management software, and cognitive testing to provide a new standard of care for the athlete.
Sadly, Riddell lost its official NFL sponsorship deal in 2013. During recent years, the NFL became increasingly focused on concussions, and, in turn, NFL officials became more concerned about the implication of selling exclusive branding rights to one helmet company over another. Ironic since Riddell started the safety conversation 75 years ago.
Today, NFL players can wear any helmet they want as long as it complies with prescribed standards, but Riddell is the only company whose name can appear on the helmet’s nose bumper. Riddell currently pays for this privilege as well as the right to produce regular-size and mini helmets with league logos on them that are most frequently sold to autograph collectors.
Joe Favorito, a veteran sports marketing consultant commented,
“Riddell helmets made the game safer and opened up the door for the NFL to become what it is today. That piece of equipment took football from being a roughneck sport to something socially acceptable.”
Definitely a story with it’s share of ups and downs, but it all goes back to one main point – an innovation created to solve a problem.