The seller claims it sat on the head of a famous NFL star. It sure looks like the real thing. But before you make a bid, you’d better look inside—and do a little legwork.
They’re colorful, durable and in short supply.
Game-worn NFL helmets tell a story through their scrapes, nicks and even their styles. It’s a rapidly growing segment of the sports memorabilia hobby, but it’s also a dangerous arena in which to shop unless you do your homework.
Ordinary helmets, even store-bought or youth sized helmets are described as game-used with a general lack of knowledge among buyers and sellers responsible for a number of fakes, frauds and uncertainties that permeate the hobby.
They take up a lot of space and are sometimes difficult to display in quantity, but finding a genuine game-worn helmet, especially a vintage lid, is rewarding. Many are one-of-a-kind survivors. Unlike jerseys, which seem to be changed on a fairly regular basis, collectors and dealers who have spent years studying the life of an NFL helmet say they are nearly always used again from one year to the next. Some players have been known to wear only one helmet throughout an entire career, even taking it from one team to the next, with the team colors and logos changed for them. Players from the past were often extremely loyal to a particular manufacturer.
Frank Levenick of Real Stuff Sports has spent the last fourteen years studying helmet design inside and out, building a knowledge base to create custom helmets he sells to collectors who just want a helmet that’s as close to those worn on the field as possible. He’s also a collector who encourages anyone shopping for a helmet to know the game’s history. “I like to photo match any helmet that I buy,” said Levenick, who maintains a photo file, DVD collection of old NFL video and dozens of books with period photos.
Laziness on the part of buyers is part of the problem. Many simply rely on the auction house or dealer to provide their blessing without doing their own research.
“Unfortunately there’s not a shortage of folks out there willing to tell a buyer just what he wants to hear,” said long-time collector Robert Harvell. “In fact most sellers know that little, if any, research will go into checking the seller’s claims.
The internet has helped educate collectors thanks to the easy distribution and sharing of photographs and information. Utilizing photo resources such as Getty Images, Corbis, Google search, wireimage.com, online public library archives, online newspaper archives, auction house archives, and collector websites can be a big help to collectors doing their own authentication research.
Determining a helmet’s manufacturing date is considered the most important starting point but unfortunately, it’s one element of the authentication process that is often overlooked. A purported game-used helmet from a certain era that doesn’t match the date code stamped inside should send up a red flag according to those who know how to read the codes.
“In fact more than a few paid authenticators are guilty of not knowing about date info, not knowing how to read the date info and not even knowing where to look for it,” said Harvell. The date code information is found heat-stamped on the inside of the helmet shell. He suggests taking the information to a source such as the Game Used Forum and asking for assistance in reading the info is one option available to those attempting to validate a helmet.
Another recommended site that can help collectors is helmethut.com. Calling it a ‘tremendous resource’, Harvell beflieves the site provides an excellent starting point.
Fans essentially live in an era in which the exact same helmet model, facemask, visor, chinstrap and decals worn by an NFL player can be reproduced. Unscrupulous sellers have found creative ways to turn a helmet into exactly what they want it to be because of the availability of team logo and other decals that can now be easily purchased and applied. It’s part of the process the helmet doctors use to create their own ‘game worn’ memorabilia. There was a time when these decals were available only to the teams but home computers and printers and printing shops have made the production of the decals much easier. While the fake stickers don’t perfectly duplicate what teams use, they are close enough to fool an untrained eye. “Add a dymo tape with the player’s name and number and, presto, you have a helmet that looks darn close to what the player wears,” said Harvell.
Matching the components of a helmet with a season it is supposed to represent goes hand-in-hand with the date stamping. Subtle changes in a team’s logo design can also be a dead giveaway. Levenick said one company created a throwback helmet line that didn’t correctly reproduce the team’s logo from a past era even though the company claimed it had used original artwork for the logos. The decals didn’t match the era and so virtually all of the fake throwback helmets pieced together and sold as original gamers can be spotted by a trained eye.
There have also been numerous efforts to turn vintage helmets into game-worn lids of Hall of Famers by doctoring them. Vintage helmets are more difficult to duplicate with since they are no longer manufactured, but they do exist. Scribbling a well-known player’s name on the inside of the shell in an effort to turn it into vintage gamer has often been enough to convince a buyer it’s the real deal.
Paying close attention to detail is vital. Provenance is an important part of authenticating game-used memorabilia, but even though the story of an item being given from a player to a friend, fan or acquaintance years ago may be true, it doesn’t mean the item is what it’s purported to be. Five Johnny Unitas helmets, all touted as game-worn, have surfaced in sports memorabilia auctions in the last year and a half. Given what he knows about Unitas’ preferences and photographic evidence that’s available, Harvell is skeptical that all were once worn by Johnny U. A New York Jets helmet came to the market last year, given to a young fan by Joe Namath and initially advertised by an auction house as Namath’s Super Bowl III helmet. Photographic evidence proved it wasn’t Broadway Joe’s, but perhaps one of a teammate or a generic team backup from the same season. Luckily, the discovery was made before the helmet sold at auction. It’s not an uncommon practice for a famous player to give someone a not-so-famous helmet by asking the team equipment manager for a helmet to give as a gift. The recipient of the helmet may honestly believe he was given the player’s ‘game used’ helmet and it will hit the market as such.
Strange as it may sound, some collectors have even been fooled into believing that over-the-counter youth helmets offered for sale are game used. That’s due in part to the NFL creating equipment for recreational use that’s virtually identical to what’s worn on the field—jerseys and helmets included. Helmet makers Riddell and Schutt use a less expensive and less impact-resistant plastic for their youth lines, but it’s not readily apparent to the novice collector. The interior padding style and helmet model number is what the collector needs to look at when determining if the helmet is a youth or adult helmet given the helmet shells look identical. Riddell has used a different colored padding cell for its youth and adult lines as far back as the 1970s. Schutt uses a different type of foam to distinguish between adult and youth helmets on their Air Advantage line. “If you do not know the difference you can be fooled into buying one,” Levenick said of the store model helmets.
It’s not impossible, though, for at least a few game-worn helmets of well-known players to exist. “Tony Dorsett, Mike Webster and Terry Bradshaw come immediately to mind as players that changed helmets frequently,” said Harvell, who boasts dozens of game-used helmets in his collection. Some players feel that it takes time for the helmet’s padding to break in enough for it to feel comfortable and therefore try to keep a favorite helmet usable for as long as possible. “Mark Clayton was a player that wore the same helmet throughout his career,” he stated.
Other players switched from one manufacturer to another at some point in their careers. Again, the date stamping and photo or video evidence linking the specific helmet to the player is vital. Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Earl Campbell wore Rawlings helmets for several years, but decided to switch to Riddell helmets before the Rawlings contracts expired. When they did this, the collector who has seen both examples says the players actually taped a Rawlings ‘R’ logo to the outside of their Riddell helmets so it would appear they were wearing Rawlings.
Sometimes helmets and other equipment are sold as ‘game issued’ rather than game-worn. It’s a matter of semantics that puts the helmet in the player’s possession without making a dangerous claim of actual game use. Avid collectors insist, however, that most players were never actually issued backup helmets. Teams do keep a stock of backup helmets in various sizes, but in most instances, they are not issued specifically to a certain player. If a helmet needs to be replaced, a properly sized one is taken from inventory, dressed to the player’s specifications and issued to that player. There have been exceptions including the Chicago Bears who were once under contract to Wilson Sporting Goods and kept backups on hand for Walter Payton and some of his teammates after the company stopped making helmets.
So what happens to a player’s helmet once he’s done wearing it? Unlike some baseball clubs who hold season-ending ‘garage sales’ of team jerseys and equipment, most helmets are rarely made available to the public. After each season, they’re usually sent to a re-conditioner where they are cleaned and checked for integrity. Those that can be repaired and made ready for another round of play are returned to the team or school that sent them. Those that can’t be repaired still have life, sometimes undergoing a new round of work—this one designed to turn an ordinary helmet into a gamer.
“About 15 years ago, re-conditioners discovered that by taking a helmet that they would normally throw away, they could give it a quick paint job and sell it to dealers for $25 or so,” Levenick said. “Now the dealer slaps a $5 set of decals on it, installs a new mask to is and sells it as a refurbished display helmet. He has about $45-50 in it, sells it on eBay for $100 and everyone is happy. The re-conditioner made $25 for a $5 paint job, the dealer made $50 on the helmet, and the buyer receives a helmet just like a store model but with worn padding for about half the cost. Yes, it is game-used, but from a high school player and not from an NFL superstar.”
Selling convincing reproductions has been a bit of a double-edged sword for Levenick. “If you put one of our custom helmets next to a game used helmet, most dealers, collectors, and even football players could not tell the difference. We were the first dealer to customize a helmet. We have sold many of those helmets that were turned into so-called game-used helmets (by those who bought them). We have refused to sell to approximately 75-100 people over the years when we hear or find out that they are misrepresenting the helmets that they resell.”
Sometimes when leaving a team or when a player is done using a certain helmet, it will be given to him or he will purchase it from the team. Helmets are occasionally donated to charity auctions but in general, most NFL teams are able to keep track of what happens to their helmets throughout the years, explaining their relative rarity in the sports memorabilia market.