By the 1930s, leather helmets were a standard part of football uniforms—except for Dick Plasman. The Chicago Bears' receiver never liked hats, and he particularly despised the era’s uncomfortable football helmets that constantly dropped over his eyes and obscured his vision while attempting to make catches. Preferring to play bareheaded with just his lush blonde hair as padding, Plasman is believed to be the last helmetless player in National Football League history, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Having earned two All-Pro selections and a pair of championship rings in an eight-year NFL career, Plasman was more than just some football footnote. Voted the most outstanding athlete at his Miami high school, he excelled at football from an early age. Already 6-foot-4 as a high school sophomore, Plasman towered over defenders and dominated all phases of the game.
After Plasman graduated from Vanderbilt with an electrical engineering degree, the Bears drafted him in 1937 as a pass-catching end, linebacker and kicker. The 225-pounder’s ferocious play on both sides of the ball fit seamlessly with a team nicknamed the “Monsters of the Midway.”
Teammates dubbed the rookie “Eric the Red” because of his volatile temper, which was on full display in the 1937 NFL Championship Game. After being tackled hard to the frozen ground along the opposing sideline, Plasman sparked a wild melee after taking a swing at Washington’s star quarterback, Sammy Baugh. Fans and police poured out of the stands and benches emptied as Baugh’s teammates roughed up Plasman, who left the field with a bloody nose and a split lip.
Although the NFL didn’t require players to don helmets at the time, photographs of the 1937 title game appear to show Plasman wearing headgear like the other players. The same would not be true the following season, however, and it had gruesome consequences.
A Helmetless Dick Plasman Hits a Wall Headfirst
During a home game against the Green Bay Packers on November 6, 1938, Plasman became too friendly with the confines of Wrigley Field. With Chicago driving in the first quarter, Plasman lined up as a receiver on Wrigley’s gridiron, which was shoehorned so tightly into the baseball stadium that a brick grandstand wall impinged on the Chicago end zone. Bears quarterback Ray Buivid launched a pass to Plasman, who had separated from a Packers defender. With his hands outstretched and eyes affixed on the sky, the receiver plunged headlong into the end zone wall.
The collision briefly knocked out Plasman as blood flowed from a gash that ran almost completely across the top of his head. Players and fans shielded their eyes from the grisly sight.
“He hit it head on, full stride, and peeled his whole scalp off his head,” teammate Dick Schweidler recalled in Mudbaths and Bloodbaths: The Inside Story of the Packers-Bears Rivalry. “When he hit that wall, I jumped up and thought, ‘That man is dead.’ I didn’t see how anybody could live through something like that."
Policemen helped carry the wounded Bear to the locker room, where he reportedly asked, “Did we score?" Plasman’s mother rushed to her son’s hospital bedside as he recovered from a severe scalp laceration, three fractured ribs, a broken wrist and a fractured arm. “I’m afraid Dick will never play again,” she told the media. “His broken arm has been reset and luckily he sustained only mild head injuries. However, I hardly see how his arm can ever be the same."
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Plasman, however, recovered from his injuries and excelled on the field in 1939, earning an All-Pro nod by Collyer’s Eye, a sports weekly. He helped the Bears win back-to-back NFL championships in 1940 and 1941, and he received All-Pro honors from United Press International in 1941.
Although he sported a crease in his head as a permanent reminder of his scary encounter with the Wrigley Field wall, Plasman still refused to cover his cranium. Bears teammate Hugh Gallarneau wasn’t surprised. “I mean, he had a piece of cement for a head," said the halfback, as quoted in The Pro Football Chronicle.
Only one NFL opponent took advantage of the helmetless Plasman. "The guy kept bashing me with his elbows," he recalled following his retirement as a player. "I told him I was getting sick of it. He kept on. So one day he was on the ground and I stepped on a vulnerable part of him. He stopped after that."
Military, NFL Regulations Require Dick Plasman to Cover His Head
Two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bareheaded Bear caught two passes for 48 yards in Chicago’s 1941 NFL Championship Game victory. The win was bittersweet, though, as the Bears knew World War II would end their burgeoning dynasty. “There’ll be no need of breaking up the Bears for the good of pro football,” Plasman said. “The war’s done it already."
Weeks after marrying a nurse he had met during his 1938 hospitalization, Plasman traded in his football uniform for a military one. Too tall to serve in the Navy or Marines, he was inducted into the Army Air Forces in July 1942 and assigned to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C., to direct a new physical training program for the base’s airmen.
Military service forced Plasman to sit out the 1942 and 1943 seasons and required him to do something he hated—wear a hat. The football star had given up chapeaus during his college days when a newly purchased hat blew away in a windstorm. However, service regulations required that he keep his head covered, and Plasman later recalled that he was nearly court-martialed for wandering the base with his topside exposed.
When Plasman returned to the Bears' lineup for three games during a military furlough at the end of 1944, he was also forced to cover his head because a year earlier the NFL mandated that all players don helmets. After returning to the military after the 1944 season, Plasman continued to wear a football helmet on a team of former college and professional players that represented the Personnel Distribution Command of the Army Air Forces.
Following his military service, Plasman returned to play in the NFL in Chicago, but this time with the Cardinals. After playing in three games in 1946 and four in 1947, he retired with seven touchdown receptions and 14 extra-point conversions.
Plasman returned to his bareheaded ways as an assistant coach with the Cardinals, Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, which on one occasion contributed to his getting a frostbitten ear. In 1974, sportswriter Ira Berkow asked Plasman, who died in 1981, if he would wear any headgear if given an opportunity to return to the field. “Yes,” said the NFL’s last helmetless player. “Earmuffs.”