Fred Gehrke liked everything about football except the leather helmets he and his fellow NFL players had to wear. "My gosh, I loved the game," says Gehrke, 76, who was a halfback and defensive back for the Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams during the 1940s and for the Chicago Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers in 1950. "But those gosh-awful helmets we used to wear? At best, you'd have to call them dull."
So one day after the 1947 season, during which the Los Angeles Rams had gone 6-6, Gehrke took matters into his own hands. Deciding that his teammates needed inspiration, he went to coach Bob Snyder with an idea. "I told him we needed to put some kind of design on our helmets," Gehrke says. "No other team had anything like that, and I thought it was time for a change."
Gehrke, who had majored in art at the University of Utah, painted one of the team's brown helmets dark blue and then added the now familiar yellow horns. He and Snyder presented the helmet to the Rams' owner, Dan Reeves, who liked both the idea and the design. Gehrke took 75 helmets home with him that summer and decorated them all. He was paid a dollar for each paint job.
The new headgear was introduced on Sept. 2, 1948, in an exhibition game at home against the Washington Redskins. When the Rams went charging onto the field, the 77,400 fans in the Coliseum gave them a standing ovation. The Rams lost that day 21-10, but the team made history by being the first in the NFL to wear helmets with a logo or an insignia.
Besides playing both ways and returning punts and kickoffs for the Rams, Gehrke became the caretaker of the team's headgear. He stored brushes and cans of blue and yellow paint in his locker because after every game the helmets, particularly those of the linemen, needed touching up.
In 1949 Riddell introduced plastic football helmets to the NFL, and the Rams' horns were baked into the plastic. But while Gehrke's days as a helmet artist had come to an end, his creativity had found other outlets. After breaking his nose in four straight games in 1946, he fashioned a prototype mask out of aluminum and shoe leather during the off-season with the help of his grandfather, a shoemaker. The mask looked like something Hannibal Lecter might wear, and while it was uncomfortable and, according to Gehrke, "distracting," it did the trick. And in 1968 Gehrke used pipe and netting to design the first kicking cage, for the Denver Broncos' Bob Humphreys.
In recognition of his helmet design for the Rams, the Pro Football Hall of Fame honored Gehrke in 1972 with the first Daniel F. Reeves Memorial Pioneer Award for a "significant, innovative contribution to professional football." Today, an exhibit at the museum in Canton, Ohio, commemorates Gehrke's handiwork.
Gehrke grew up in Salt Lake City, and after earning letters in football, diving and track and field at Utah, he played his first NFL season with the Cleveland Rams in 1940 for $135 a game. After the season he got a job at Northrup Aircraft in Hawthorne, Calif., as a technical illustrator in the engineering department. When the U.S. entered World War II, in 1941, Gehrke stayed on the West Coast and played for the Los Angeles Bulldogs in the Pacific Coast League.
After the war Gehrke re-signed with Cleveland for $5,000 a year. The Rams won the NFL title in 1945 and moved to Los Angeles the following year. Gehrke played four more years with the Rams before finishing his career with the Cardinals and the 49ers in 1950.
Gehrke went back to Northrup after his retirement from football but returned to the game in 1965 as director of player personnel for the Denver Broncos, working with an old college buddy, Bronco coach Mac Speedie. Gehrke ultimately became general manager and vice president of the Orange Crush team that lost Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys 27-10. And, yes, he helped design the Broncos' Super Bowl rings.
"I spent the better part of my life in football, and I'll be best remembered for some work I did with a paintbrush, but that's O.K.," Gehrke says. "I've been called the Da Vinci of football helmets, and that's not all bad."
And which helmets, apart from the Rams', are Gehrke's favorites? He has always liked the Colts' horseshoe. "It's simple, it's an identifiable symbol, and you can see it from the stands," he says. "The Vikings' helmets are pretty good too, and so are the Eagles'." What about the headgear of the Cleveland Browns, the only NFL team without a design on its helmets? "Well, since they're the only team without a logo, you'd have to say at least it's unusual," he says. "Besides, how the heck are you going to show a Brown?"
Gehrke is best known for giving the Rams their horns.
Mark Mandernach is a freelance journalist who lives in Arlington Heights, Ill.