Going to the grocery store was always an excruciating experience as a youth. It seemed that the endeavor consumed an entire day as what felt like hours slowly ticked by while staring at walls of different varieties of Hamburger Helper while mom debated the pros and cons of the different flavors of boxed pastas that would provide our sustenance for another week. There was one bright spot on the trip however. Upon entry and exit of the establishment an assortment of vending machines would tempt children to fritter away their quarters on various knick-nacks like stickers, plastic jewelry, small figurines and the like. None of them captivated me quite as much as the miniature football helmets.
Even if you weren’t a fan of football the helmets were always cool to look at and the gumball machine versions of the headgear also held another advantage over other toys in these displays: they needed to be assembled. Inside of the capsule was the helmet, a facemask, and a small sticker sheet that contained the decals for the left side logo, the right side logo, and the stripe that went down the center of the helmet. Once you popped open the capsule it was always a fun 77 seconds piecing together your newest treasure.
Apparently these helmets predate me by quite a few decades getting their start back in the 1960’s. I’m sure kids back then paid far less than a quarter a piece for these small keepsakes and in fact they could be bought in boxed sets broken down by division or conference. My dad used to have boxed sets of these from the 1960’s that were sold as “NFL West” and “NFL East”. In the 1970’s IHOP (yes the International House of Pancakes) ran a promotion where you could purchase the helmets individually prepackaged with the stickers already applied for 24¢ each. This would have been much easier than attempting to piece together the set yourself through the luck of the draw at the vending machine!
When putting your quarters in the vending machine there was always a chaser helmet that would be more difficult to obtain than the rest. I began collecting these when there were 30 NFL teams; before the new Cleveland Browns re-entered the league and before the Houston Texans came into existence. The New York Jets seemed to be the most common helmet in the machine and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were certainly the most rare. I never did obtain that elusive hideous looking Buccaneers helmet. Of the 30 franchises that year I was stuck at 29 and the following year the Bucs completely changed their logo and color scheme. For years my set was incomplete until the early 2000’s when I discovered that you could purchase an entire complete set of these things on eBay which is what I quickly did. I had a great time popping all of those capsules and putting together 32 helmets in one sitting.
Over time the set would go through several changes of course. The first of which would be the inclusion of new teams as expansion franchises entered the league. After that, teams would periodically alter their helmet designs and their gumball counterparts of course would reflect these adjustments. Eventually as time wore on the primary design of NFL facemasks underwent a pretty radical transformation. By the 1990’s the gumball helmets changed with the time and ditched the old two bar style facemask for a more contemporary design.
As far as appearance these were far from perfect. The facemask’s were all white and a team like the Bengals that had stripes running from one side of the helmet over the top and to the other always looked a bit odd as they did not conform to the format of other clubs. When these debuted in the 60’s facemask color wasn’t an issue as they were always “standard grey”. Over time as the protection and artistic aspects of the football helmet were refined the color of the bars would begin to accompany the scheme of the rest of the helmet. It was also less fun putting together a helmet like the Browns because they had no logos. Put the stripe sticker on the top and pop on the facemark and you were finished.
Although most of these helmets are easily found and can be procured cheaply some of them are quire rare and fetch a princely sum on the secondary market. Typically it’s design changes that were brief and would only be available at market for a year or so that create rarity and thus greater value. Examples would be the “disco” New York Giants helmet logo, the odd Cleveland Browns “CB” logo, some of the more obscure Houston Oilers helmets, and a black New Orleans Saints helmet among others.
By the 2000’s the old assemble it yourself style gumball helmet was finally retired in favor of a more realistic looking version. The newer helmets featured accurate colored facemasks and printed logos and detailing that no longer required the application of stickers. Although they are more true to life, in my opinion a lot of the charm is missing from these. Today’s child will never know the thrill of popping on the facemask or the agony of a misaligned sticker. Instead the helmet is removed from the capsule ready to display on a shelf without any kind of play value whatsoever which is a big step backwards in my eyes.