The Surprising and Unexpected Evolution of Football Cleats

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Complex Original

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Football season is finally upon us, and in between embarrassing ourselves at Buffalo Wild Wings, obsessively checking our fantasy teams, and trying to keep ourselves in pick-up game playing shape, Sneaker Report takes a moment to look back. We don't often pay much attention to what the players are wearing on their feet unless they are

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Year: 1526

Cleats: First Recorded Sports Shoe

Made Famous By: An unsportsmanlike king.

While no images of the shoes survived, “football boots” are listed in Henry's Great Wardrobe of 1526, which, apparently is a medieval shopping list of sorts. Henry would later try to ban football (soccer to red-blooded Americans) in 1540, one of the earliest of examples of poor sportsmanship, as historians attribute this decision to “not being picked first … and … being taunted because of his weight.”

Year: 1820

Cleats: 1st Modern Soccer Cleats

Made Famous By: Perhaps the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, but probably not.

While a game similar to American football was being played at Harvard by 1820 (though it still greatly resembled Rugby), soccer cleats were already taking modern form. Association Football Codes of the period forbade dangerous materials used for cleats as well as material that was too sticky or adhesive. We feel like these rules would have been understood, but like we learn every year at the office Christmas party, if you don't lay down any ground rules, things can go south really quick.


Year:  1920s

Cleats: Wooden Football Cleat

Made Famous By: Football OGs

Though metal studs were first used in the making of football cleats in the 1890s, it took time for the standardization of football cleats to occur, much like the game itself. This led to ill-fated ideas, such as the wooden cleats seen here. Rumor has it that the Dutch played with a clog-cleat entirely made of wood, which is why football never got big in the Netherlands.


Year: 1925

Cleats: 1st Removable Studs Invented

Made Famous By: Some German Bros

In 1925, the Dassler Brothers created removable metal studs for their shoes. They took off and prior to World War II, they were selling several hundred thousand pairs of shoes a year. Things went south for the brothers during World War II, however. Their factory was appropriated for anti-tank weapon production, and tensions grew between the brothers due to their differing opinions on the Nazi Party. After the war, they split; Rudolph went on to create Puma and Adi formed Adidas.


Year: 1927 

Cleats: 1st Removable Cleat by Riddell

Made Famous By:

American shoe manufacturer Riddell was one of the first to state-side companies to make significant strides with football cleats. Not only did they develop the removable cleat, but they also were one of the first companies to realize that athletic shoes should be modeled differently than street shoes. Their 1929 cleat featured an "action last", meaning its sole had a steeper angle for "snug fit, proper support and maximum traction." We are not sure when ads decided to replace weird coats-of-arms with hot girls in bikinis, but we are thankful for that technological advancement as well.


Year: 1930s

Cleats: 1st Football Mud Cleat by Joseph Pipal

Made Famous By:

The first football mud cleats were developed by Joseph Pipal in the early 1930s. Pipal coached football all over the coutry, working at Dickinson College, the Univesity of South Dakota, Occidental College and Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State). Pipal is also credited with devising the lateral pass. It is amazing to think that a sport had to be around for decades before someone said, "Hey Man! Pass it sideways!"


Year: 1940s

Cleats: Football Cleat

Made Famous By: Lou Groza (Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer)

Not only were cleats vastly different in the 1940s, the type of player that you saw was quite different as well. Lou Groza, who wore these cleats, began his career in the 40s and was still playing in 1964 (his career spanned twenty-one years). By the end of his career, he was kicking field goals with “his stomach hanging down over his football pants as he kicked one field goal after another.” It is no surprise that you didn’t see much improvement in the football cleat in the 1940s, as the players hadn't yet learned to take care of themselves, let alone demand more performance out of their footwear. Despite Groza’s shape, it bears mentioning that he helped the Browns dominate while he played and was responsible for scoring 1,608 points during his career.


Year: 1960s

Cleats: Kicking Shoe, Brand Unknown

Made Famous By: Gino Cappelletti

Gino Cappelletti’s shoes, pictured here, sure looks strange, as one is rounded and the other is square. This was actually the norm for kickers who kicked the ball in the “straight ahead” style. Kickers who kicked "straight ahead" also often played other positions; Cappelletti was an offensive lineman. There was wide-spread resistance to the change to “soccer-style” kicking. As one fan’s son put it:

It didn't matter how many times the advantages of kicking soccer-style was explained, my Dad hated soccer-style kickers with a passion usually reserved for hippies, lawyers, politicians, the IRS and door-to-door salesmen. Dad wanted (and still wants, actually) a world where ALL kickers looked like mechanics or shady used-car salesmen, kicked straight-on and played a REAL position too. Or two out of three of those at least - with kicking straight-on being mandatory.

 Of course, soccer-style kicking eventually won out and square-toed shoes went the way of the dinosaur despite strange conservative protests like this one.


Year: 1967

Cleats: Puma Football Cleats, White

Made Famous By: Joe Namath

By the 1960s, advancements in shoe material and construction allowed for all-white and colored shoes. Black shoes remained the NFL standard, however, until Joe Namath wore white kicks to compliment his gaudy fur sideline coats. This opened the door for new shoe colors and designs in the NFL. In the 1970s, Steelers Defensive End L.C. Greenwood would wear gold shoes in tribute to Namath. Namath was famously photographed in a towel with Farrah Fawcett in a tribute to his heterosexuality.


Year: 1969

Cleats: AstroTurf ready cleats by Adidas

Made Famous By: People playing on fake grass everywhere.

Astroturf was invented by Donal L. Elbert, James M. Faria and Robert T. Wright in 1965. By 1970, the first World Series game on AstroTurf was played, and by 1974, we had the first Superbowl played on AstroTurf when the Miami Dolphins met the Minnesota Vikings. The advent of AstroTurf called for a radical redesign of cleats, and more recent turf breaktroughs such as FieldTurf have called for still more redesign considerations. A Visual comparison of some of the different types of modern turf cleat can be found here.


Year: 1970

Cleats: Custom Kicking Boot

Made Famous By: Tom Dempsey

It is amazing to consider Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard game-winning field goal against the Detroit Lions still holds the NFL record (though it has been tied by Jason Elam and Sebastian Janikowski, kicking in Denver's field goal-friendly air). The feat is made all the more incredible because Dempsey used the old “straight-forward” style of kicking discussed above. Perhaps the most incredible thing about Dempsey’s kicking is that he was born without any toes on his kicking foot. While many felt this provided Dempsey an unfair advantage, a study by ESPN Sports Science concluded that it provided Dempsey no significant advantage, and that, if anything, it made his accomplishments all the more remarkable. One of Dempsey’s unique cleats is still enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame today. If you have children, it may frighten them to look at it. If they hide their eyes, force them to look back at it, demanding they "respect history".


Year: 1970

Cleats: Puma Football Cleats

Made Famous By: Fran Tarkington

While Broadway Joe’s white shoes were a shocker in the 1960s, the 1970s ushered in an era of bright colors from the San Diego Chargers’ gold face mask to the insides of the Minnesota Vikings' cleats. While Tarkington’s shoes pictured here a relatively dull black, you can see what remains of the purple interior of the shoe if you look closely.


Year: 1983

Cleats: Spalding Football Cleats

Made Famous By: Terry Bradshaw (Final Season)

You may have noticed that throughout the 70s and 80s the football cleat began to look more and more like a soccer cleat. By the early 80s, the shape of the cleats for the two sports was almost identitical. This is because the 1970s saw a rash of research into exactly what shape and style of cleat would be best. For example, this 1977 article from the American Journal of Sports Medicine argues for a “soccer style” cleat on the gridiron. As of this writing, one of the largest differences between American Football and soccer is that watching soccer is "painfully boring".


Year: 1980s

Cleats: Converse Football Cleats

Made Famous By: Jim Plunkett

By the 1970s, once mighty Converse was already falling out of fashion, making a radical descent from its World War II heights. Though the brand still had some cache when Plunkett wore Converse in the 1980s, the brand would continue to suffer. Converse was sold out to long-time competitor Nike in 2003 for $305 Million.


Year: 1980s

Cleats: Converse Football Cleats

Made Famous By: Mark Murphy

The 1980s marked a return to a more conservative uniform, right down to the cleats. Murphy’s plain white cleats shown here reflect this trend. The focus turned away from showy colors and towards increased players safety. A bevy of new facemasks were introduced in the 1980s, shoulder pads were modified to increase player protection, and research continued into making players' shoes better for their game and better for their health.


Year: 1995

Cleats: Nike Premier

Made Famous By: Jerry Rice

Jerry Rice was not only the greatest receiver of all time, but he was also a pioneer of showboating. Rice wrote “Flash 80” (his nickname) on the bottom of his cleats, as he knew that was the only thing they would see of him as he ran past them and toward the end zone. Rice was also given ample endorsements by Nike during his career. This also meant that he took ample heat from those concerned about Nike's suspect overseas labor practices. A vintage Jerry Rice Nike ad can be seen here, courtesy of @solecollector.


Year: 1995

Cleats: Reebok Pumps

Made Famous By: Emmit Smith        

Those of us who remember the 90s remember two things about sports shoes: ridiculous gimmicks and an unending stream of athletic endorsements. There is an reason for this. In their Handbook for the Economics of Sport, William Andreff and Stefan Szymanski lay it down. The 1990s sports industry was an oligopoly, that is, dominated by a handful of companies. In this environment, the determining factor is not price, as the price points will be similar, but “marketing strategies” and “product differentiation”. Marketing strategy: Emmit Smith wears my shoe, not yours. Product Differentiation: When I push the little basketball, my shoes fill with air. Yours don’t.


Year: 2001

Cleats: Nike Football Cleat

Made Famous By: Tom Brady

Surprisingly, Nike was a late entrant into the American football cleat game; points out that Nike’s first football shoe was manufactured in 1990s. Nike’s 1997 annual report attributed this to their ubiquitous swoosh. As they put it, “[the] company has come to be known by a symbol – the swoosh.” Papsan and Goldman note that by the late nineties, “Nike advertising is no longer about selling shoes but about keeping the swoosh highly visible and highly valued.” All that being said, we’d rather see Brady in Nikes than in the UGGs he is currently repping.


Year: 2000s

Cleats: Nike Alpha Project

Made Famous By: Marshall Faulk

With shoes, as with life, success brings new sets of problems. While the Nike Swoosh became a ubiquitous brand, it also carried baggage. While Nike stretched across numerous athletic platforms, it lacked credibility with individual sports and their athletes. That’s where Nike Alpha Proejct comes in. The Alpa Project brand was created to diversify the brand for performance-focused athletes. It seems that the moved worked, as the Alpha Project line still have fans today, like those in this Sneaker Talk Forum.


Year: 2007

Cleats: Nike Zoom

Made Famous By: Brian Urlacher

Branding grew more and more valuable throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century. The NFL was not unaware of this fact. While individual players have their own endorsement deals, so does the league. Roger D. Blair tells an interesting story about how  Brian Urlacher got caught between the league and a corporation. While Urlacher was within his rights to wear these kicks, he was not permitted to wear a Vitamin Water Cap at 2007’s Super Bowl Media Day. Gatorade was the official drink of the NFL in 2007, which meant that Urlacher was subject to a $100,000 fine.


Year: 2009

Cleats: Reebok Molded NFL Burner Speed

Made Famous By: Anthony Madison

While colored cleats had been a possibility for several decades, 2009 marked the beginning of the NFL’s attempt to use colored cleats for a good cause. Players are able to raise breast cancer awareness as well as awareness of how comfortable they are with their masculinity with these shoes. We pity the fool that attempts to make fun of a NFL player for his rosey kicks.


Year: 2011

Cleats: Adidas, Adi-Zero 5 Star

Made Famous By: C.J. Spiller, Eric Berry

There is much debate as to what is the lightest football cleat on the market today, and how certain lightweight cleats perform over others. In January of 2011, Adidas fired quite a salvo, releasing Adidas 5 Star tips the scales at only 6.9 ounces. This beat competitors’ lightest shoes and their own previous lightweight models by two ounces. Just remember, no matter how light your shoes are, it's probably too late for you to go pro ... so take it easy in your pick-up games this season and be sure to wear proper footwear.


Year: 2011 - present

Cleats: Nike Vapor Talon Elite

Made Famous By: Marshawn Lynch

The Nike Vapor Talon Elite are the 2012 NFL standard for Nike endorsed ballers. The shoe made its colorful debut last year when Seahawks' Running Back "Beast Mode" Marshawn Lynch wore a special "Skittles Edition" of the cleats. Lynch incorporates Skittles into his touchdown celebrations and Seattle fans now shower him with the candies after big plays: hence the colorful cleats. The Hyperfuse Construction, which involves the fusion of three different materials to create a seamless design, should keep much of the league in Beast Mode through the 2012 season.