The Detroit Lions’ helmet history is quite the backstory and it begins all the way back in 1930 when the team played in a small Ohio River town called Portsmouth, Ohio when most of the NFL was made up of small town teams. As the depression hit and the need for larger markets called, the team packed up and headed for Detroit.
Many of us know the Lions’ current helmet logo has been virtually the same with nothing more than a modern upgrade back in 2009. What we may not know is the fact there were more than just the traditional silver shell and Honolulu blue logo that we’ve become accustomed to seeing from this historic franchise.
Starting in Portsmouth, let’s kick off this little timeline regarding the Lions.
When the Spartans debuted in 1930, they wore typical dark beige leatherheads, as has been seen so many times in the NFL’s early days. By 1932, the Spartans switched to purple for their final two seasons in Ohio before heading to Detroit prior to 1934.
Silver leatherheads donned the crowns of the NFL’s Monarchs from 1934 to 1948, when the team switched to….maroon?
Yep, Bo McMillin, influenced by a college team he once coached by the name of Indiana, initiated the switch. The look proved to be so unpopular that the team ditched the maroon leatherheads after 1949, instead opting for silver and blue plastic shells which became commonplace in the late-1940s.
During the first decade of the plastic helmet shells, the Lions’ original helmets were gold, believe it or not, with no markings of any kind, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
In 1951 and 1952, the logoless plain helmets were still blue or silver.
Starting in 1953, the Lions switched to a solid gold shell, which still bore no markings except for a single white helmet stripe, unlike their silver and blue cousins, which the team wore on occasion from 1953 to 1956.
Finally in 1957, silver became the color of the shells, which the team had worn ever since, with some modifications, of course, including stripes and a logo.
As with many NFL teams in the 1960s, the Lions added a helmet decal and crown stripes to their helmets in 1961, an era where the NFL pressured teams into adopting logos so television audiences could tell them apart. This decal became that of a leaping lion while two blue helmet stripes occupied the crown.
In 1970, the Lions added white in between the blue helmet stripes, which allowed the blue to stand out more, as well as a white outline around the leaping lion logo.
Starting in 1983, the traditional gray facemask was abandoned in favor of Honolulu blue, another trend that became popular in the NFL in the late-70s and 1980s.
When Matt Millen became the general manager in 2002, the Lions again updated their look in 2003, this time featuring black for the first time. The blue facemask was changed to black and black stripes were added to the helmet stripes. This was yet another trend that was popular in the early 2000s, with many teams switching to darker shades.
This helmet became synonymous with the team’s perpetual losing, where they were among one of the NFL’s worst teams from 2002 until Millen’s firing in 2008.
After a historically bad 0-16 season, the Lions decided to add fierceness to the traditional leaping Lion logo, which many felt was too soft. Detail was added to the lion’s mane, and sharp teeth were made visible near the mouth area. Also, a white eye gleamed from the decal, too.
It would be the team’s first radical logo redesign since 1961, where previous redesigns typically involved outlines, facemask, and striping changes.
In 2017, the Lions began a radical redesign process of their uniform and helmet, which eliminated the black for the first time since it was introduced back in 2003. As a nod to the earlier helmets, the Lions went with just Honolulu blue on the helmet’s crown while changing the facemask back to its traditional silver/gray.
I’ve been clamoring for the Lions to ditch the black for years and they finally obliged in 2017. As a result, they now possess one of the better helmets in the NFL and one of the best in the NFC.
Another team that has once again followed a trend, and it seems like the Lions do this often, by reverting back to a more classic look, but with a modernized twist. While the helmet logo remains the same, the now-dated black is long gone from the look, hopefully for good.
The Lion’s helmet may be synonymous with perpetual losing as the team has only one playoff win since 1957, but the look has become one of the more historical ones in the league, with periodic redesigns featuring similar striping, color, and logo patterns.
While it may not be as traditional as that of Green Bay or Chicago, the Lions’ look definitely deserves credit for refusing to go hog wild on new trends, even if the team does follow them to an extent, keeping many elements in both the helmet and uniform identical.
It’s something that myself and many other uni-purists can live with.