The changing face of the NFL

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LaDainian Tomlinson may be retired, but his impact on the field can still be seen in many ways, including stylistically.

What LT helped transform, as put on display by both Giants defensive end Justin Tuck and Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, is the expanding use of custom facemasks. The option gives players a rare opportunity to exhibit some degree of individuality in a professional sport colloquially referred to as the No Fun League because of strict adherence -- sometimes to a controversial extent -- to its uniform code. Distinctive masks have become the latest trend in a copycat league.

"From the past 20 years, you could start seeing a different complexion of an NFL facemask," said Giants equipment director, Joe Skiba, who has helped design multiple custom designs over the years. "Our belief is that whatever the player needs for protection or performance, that's our job, to keep them protected and make sure they perform at the highest level."

Although custom masks have in the past been injury driven -- and Skiba noted this remains the top priority of creating a guard for a player in the Giants locker room -- the masks are increasingly being employed for stylistic purposes. By the estimations of Schutt Sports, one of the leading football helmet makers, as a member of the Chargers Tomlinson was one of the first, if not the most prominent player to begin wearing a custom variety purely for aesthetics.

"He looked pretty imposing," said Glenn Beckmann, Schutt's director of marketing communications. "Intimidation is a big part of the game of football and he looked like The Predator when he had his tinted eye shield with that Darth Vader mask on. It's not quite a surprise that we're seeing the next step in the way some of these players set their own personal brand. It is a way for them to not only show themselves off a little bit, but get as much protection."

Thad Ide, senior vice president of research and product development for Riddell, one of the other leading helmet manufacturers, said he agreed that while protection and performance still have a lot to do with why a player would choose a mask, the vanity of the product is a big factor in the choice to go custom.

"That plays a large role in it," he said. "Players, they have a look they're trying to achieve."

To manage the rise of special requests it has seen in the last 10 years -- to the tune of more than one a week -- Riddell has even created custom facemask design software, which has been distributed to each NFL team.

With Tomlinson's retirement, Tuck has become the poster boy for facemask specialization after opting for one this season that has been compared to both a full-face waffle fry and the villain Shredder from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. At minicamp earlier this season, when he first revealed the "Tuck 2.0," the Giants defensive captain discussed the inspiration for the design -- a locomotive.

"You see the old-school trains, the grilles on the old-school trains," he told the Giants official website in June, "that's what I was going for."

While the debut of Tuck's mask attracted attention, it is not quite original. The concept comes from a design initially produced for teammate Chris Canty.

After getting hit in the face with a glass bottle as a bystander during a bar fight before the 2005 draft, Canty suffered a detached retina that was immediately repaired by emergency surgeons. Doctors told Canty that if he got poked in the eye during play, though, his career could quickly come to an end. In turn, Schutt helped develop what became termed the "Big Grill" facemask to protect the defensive tackle's left eye.

Due to the tiny holes between the bars of the guard, Tuck embraced it last season in an effort to prevent offensive linemen from grasping and pulling his mask, aggravating a nagging neck injury. Before retiring after one season with the Giants, linebacker Keith Bulluck also wore this design.

Now that Tuck has opted for the upgrade in 2012, others have taken notice. In July, EA Sports, makers of the Madden video game franchise, released an image of Tuck in the game with his new custom mask. And, according to Skiba, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, signed by the Giants in the offseason, suggested that each of the D-linemen get their own custom mask. But unlike Canty, whose design was eventually mass-produced and can be spotted on high school and collegiate fields nationwide, Tuck won't be sharing.

"Everybody was like, 'Can I get that facemask?'" Tuck explained. "No, it's exclusive to me. No one else can have it."

Of course, neither Tuck, Canty, nor Tomlinson were the first to wear tailor-made masks. Beckmann said custom guards date back to one the Litchfield, Ill.-based company created in 1972 to protect the broken jaw of St. Louis Cardinals future Hall of Fame offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf. Los Angeles Rams running back Les Josephson wore a brace attachment on his facemask during the 1970 season to protect his own broken jaw, but it was not a fully customized one-piece mask.

Another custom guard from the late '80s and early '90s likely aided in producing this contemporary facemask wave. Hall of Famer Deion Sanders helped usher in the popularity of the EG style design, commonly referred to as "The Deion." All-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith also used the EG, which was first developed for fellow legendary running back Eric Dickerson for practical reasons. He wanted bars located at the temple of the mask to prevent opponents from getting their fingers on his distinctive goggles.

Today, even quarterbacks make special requests for custom masks. Another Giant, Eli Manning, prefers a mask with one fewer horizontal bar than is customarily worn by players at the position and that protrudes an additional inch, so he can get his hands underneath, on occasion to lick his fingers for added grip on the ball.

The facemask was not always a requirement. The NFL began mandating helmets in 1943, but the facemask lagged behind. The now essential piece of safety equipment gained league-wide endorsement in 1955, but there remains quite a bit of debate over who was the last to go without. Long-time Detroit Lions quarterback Bobby Layne was probably one of the last not to wear it, doing so until ending his career with the Steelers in 1962. Hall of Fame wide receiver Tommy McDonald was another of the final holdouts around that time, finishing his playing days with the Browns.

A rule calling for facemasks did not officially hit the books until 1990, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame believes some NFL publication, be it bylaws, a policy guide, or a meeting minutes, includes the language requiring them probably in the early '60s. The masks have been evolving ever since.

"You don't see generic facemasks anymore like you would have seen historically," said Ide, "where the faceguard and the helmet were seen as different devices. Each helmet style is designed as a protective system that includes the faceguard."

"Facemasks are one of those, I guess you could say, unsung heroes of the football helmet," said Beckmann, "but I think players are understanding and starting to realize that they can actually upgrade them if you will, and make custom designs. From our perspective, we may have opened up a Pandora's box, but we like doing it for the guys in the NFL. They're not going to wear something they think they look stupid in. Never underestimate the power of the mirror."