An Ode to the Vertical Bar Facemask

by Ben D’Alessio

Facemasks are in right now. And although June is about as far away from football season as you can get, even talks about canceling the 2020 season apropos the coronavirus has me itching under the arms. Not only that, but March Madness was canceled, Baseball will begin who-knows-when (late July? I’ll believe it when I see it), and no, NASCAR and Celebrity Golf outings won’t do it for me. So, to quench my sports thirst I have been shoving my face into the large vats of old football footage that NBCSN (“The Vault”), conference-oriented channels like the Big Ten Network, and SEC Network have been putting out there day and night. At one point, I basically had every New Year’s Eve Bowl Game from the mid-80s to early-90s saved in my queue.

Watching these option-oriented, Power-I formationed, under-center five-step dropping, titans of the Reagan-era gridiron provided me with a faux-nostalgia I never actually experienced — I wasn’t born until 1990, after all.

But even deep into the 2000s, the bulky-shouldered padded, mid-riff exposed, fingers-taped, members of the blue-chip schools served as the prototype “football player” in young imaginations. And for this kid, obsessed with knights and gladiators — I celebrated many a birthday at the Medieval Times in Lyndhurst, NJ — the most appealing part of the whole get-up was the helmet, the final piece of armor strapped onto your head before marching into battle.

When I hit the 3rd Grade and was finally allowed to get my own pads, I didn’t care what was in front of my face — I believe that except for a couple of players who bought their own, we all had the same matching, plastic cage with the vertical bar going down the center, it didn’t matter if you were a quarterback or guard.

This guy brings back memories.

But as we got older and style — in the form of accessorizing — became yet one more aspect of the game, the bars you put on the front of your helmet mattered. You had the “Deion Sanders” or “Sean Taylor” or “Darren Sproles,” these were in; vertical bar, you were for lineman at Nebraska, you were old news, and we forsook you.

For that, I apologize.

“The Deion”
Sean Taylor, a BAMF
Sproles’ horseshoe: unsure of functionality, but damn it looks cool (I wore it in the 5th Grade).

This piece is for that vertical bar, which didn’t discriminate based on position or on school. It was de rigueur for runningbacks throughout the 70s, 80s, and into the early 1990s.

Vertical bar and “34” looks good on RBs. These three greats would have to agree. (Earl Campbell, Thurman Thomas, Herschel Walker)

In fact, the Miami Hurricanes of the 1980s, the coolest team ever assembled, featured vert-bar with their exceptional running backs.

Melvin Bratton: 1/2 of the 1–2 punch.
Alonzo Highsmith, the second half.

And, of course, linebackers and safeties adopted ol’ vertical as their mask of choice to terrorize opposing offenses.

Couldn’t find Robert Pickett pic online, so this is from my TV. ALL linebackers should look like this.
The BAMF before the BAMF listed above, Ronnie Lott.

And just so you don’t accuse me of just equating “cool” with “black players” here is Brian “The Boz” Bosworth, one of the coolest linebackers to ever play the game. (I think I could write a similar piece about the neck-roll…)

You might be asking yourself: “Wouldn’t a bar running down the middle of my face make it difficult to catch the ball or accurately scan the field for defenders?” Well, why don’t we ask the player with indisputably the best vision in football history, Barry Sanders, what he thinks?

(Yes, I know Barry was known for a different mask, but shut-up that doesn’t fit my narrative.)

Now, I’m not advocating for every player to rock the verti-bar. I don’t think it works for Quarterbacks and Receivers, although, I do give props to Randy Campbell, Auburn Tigers quarterback for being a trendsetter down on “The Plains”.

It’s a power move.

And hey, I’m not the only guy facemask dreaming over here, as I stumbled upon this ESPN article while conducting research for this one — not gonna lie, my heart sunk for a moment when I thought someone had beat me to the punch… 11 years early. However, to my infinite joy, I quickly realized the writer was ode-ing a different facemask altogether — the silly and stupid single-bar. I did golf-clap the “single barista” term though.


“I’m just wearing this so I don’t get fined.”

For the last twenty years or so — the period that will certainly be considered the Dark Ages of facemasks and their increasingly alien-like, space-age helmets — it was as if all the vertical-bar masks had faded with the retirements of La’Roi Glover, Tony Siragusa, and Bruce Smith.

But then it happened. I began to see — doth my eyes deceive me, smite them— vertical bars appear in both the NCAA and NFL 2019 seasons. If you follow me on Instagram, you probably saw random pictures of football players appear on my story with exclamations and arrows pointed at their faces.

Me pointing out vertical bars Thursday-Monday.
Alton Robinson: Defensive End, Pioneer.
Jonathan Allen: Defensive Tackle, Trendsetter.
Matt McGlinchy: Offensive Tackle, Hero.

These are the pioneers of the facemask renaissance and we should know their names.

Please comment with any players from your favorite teams and I’ll add them to the list.

Brings a tear to my eye, and I hope it continues, but what I’m dying for is to see a skill-position, even a defensive back, go vertical for the 2020 season.

A man can dream.

Do it before Jack Lambert gets you.

Okay, the original BAMF.

Ben D’Alessio is the author of the novels Binge Until Tragedy, Lunchmeat, and The Neon God. 20% of all royalties are donated to The Covenant House, Atlantic City. Visit his website to learn more. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Author of the novels: Binge Until Tragedy, Lunchmeat, The Neon God, & 6 Harlots: Rebirth of a Nation | Linwood, NJ

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