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NFL100: Before they were zebras, they were … candy canes?

NFL officials didn’t always wear black and white striped shirts. To commemorate the 100th NFL season, Football Zebras takes a look back at how the third team dressed for a game.



#NFL100: A Football Zebras feature series

NFL officials didn’t always wear black and white striped shirts. To commemorate the 100th NFL season, Football Zebras takes a look back at how the third team dressed for a game.Â

No stripes to be found (1920-40)

Umpire Tom Thorp works a 1939 New York – Washington game (New York Giants)

At the league’s founding, the NFL required its officials to wear a white shirt, white pants or knickers, black socks and bow tie. The NFL strongly encouraged officials to wear “newsboy” style caps, but it was not required. If the crew wore caps, the referee wore a red cap, and the head linesman, umpire and field judge wore white hats.

Officials were paid by the home team from the gate receipts and not league employees. Their gear was not supplied by the league either, and the word uniform really was not true to its meaning.

In 1994, for the NFL’s 75th anniversary, officials wore the hats and bowties in select games.

Zebras or candy canes? (1941-46)

Starting in 1941, the NFL put it’s own stamp on its officials’ uniform. The league adapted the striped shirt, but instead of copying college officials, the pros widened the stripes to two inches and each position wore a different colored striped shirt. The referee wore black and white stripes. The umpire wore red and white stripes. The head linesman wore orange and white stripes. And, the field judge wore an eye-popping green and white striped shirt.Â

For the first time, the NFL put numbers on the back of the officials’ shirts. The numbers were first assigned by position referees received single-digit numbers, umpires were in the teens, field judges in the 20s, and head linesmen 30s.

While caps were not mandatory, the baseball cap became the popular choice to wear, with the newsboy caps slowly retiring. And, all the officials wore white caps, no matter the style.

In case of cold or inclement weather, the officials had jackets that were color-coded to their positions, with a few vertical white stripes.

Unfortunately, for an era that had the most colorful uniforms, color photography was not as widespread. So the above illustration from the Gridiron Uniform Database will have to suffice, with a few color films for some fleeting glimpses as well.

Black stripes, red numbers (1947-59)

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The NFL added a fifth official in 1947, the back judge. Rather than finding a new color for the back judge to wear, the NFL put all its officials in black and white stripes and overlayed red numbers on their backs. While easy to see in person at the stadium, as you can see from the photo above, those numbers were hard to see on film.

All officials were expected to wear white baseball caps, although the old guard who still wore the newsboy caps were grandfathered in.

A new league and … Cremecicles? (1960-1966)

When the American Football League burst onto the scene, it broke from the traditional NFL in many ways. One was to outfit the officiating crew in red-orange striped uniforms. The officials first had numbers overlaid on the stripes. Then for two years, the officials did not wear numbers. For the last two years, the officials shirts sported blue numbers on a white box.

In 2009, the NFL celebrated the golden anniversary of the American Football League. Original AFL teams wore throwback uniforms. The officials also got in on the celebration and wore throwback uniforms.

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When the AFL and NFL announced the merger in 1966, the cremecicles went into mothballs and the AFL adopted the NFL’s uniform style.

Entering the modern era (1960-78)

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Starting in 1960, the NFL made a slight alteration to the officials’ uniforms. The NFL put the jersey numbers in black boxes with a white, rounded font. The numbers showed up very nicely in black-and-white and color film

All officials wore white caps.

From 1960 to 2004, while the numbering style changed, this basic shirt and knickers look didn’t change.

One crazy system (1979-81)

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In 1979, the NFL put the referee in a black cap and the rest of the crew wore white caps so that TV crews could quickly identify the referee out of a herd of zebras. This was part of a numbering system that was so fraught with problems, they abandoned it after just three seasons.

The updated look (1982-2005)

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After the failed 1979-81 numbering system, the NFL returned to the traditional numbering system and the officials had large numbers on their backs, taking up about half the back of the shirt.Â

In 1988 the NFL put the referee in a white hat and the rest of the officials wore black hats.

While the numbers changed in font and style, this shirt and number era was the longest running in NFL history at 23 years.

NFL signature shirts (2005– )

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In 2006, the NFL wanted to set the officials’ shirt apart from others. The two-inch stripes, a staple since 1941, went away for the current look. The shirts were subject to NFL copyright, using the league’s proprietary typefaces as well, so any commercials depicting officials needed the NFL’s blessing in order for the commercial to show the authentic official’s shirt.

Also, for the first time since 1941, the officials were given the chance to wear pants instead of knickers in cold weather. Those pants were warmer than the knickers and gave the officials the chance to wear layers in brutally cold weather

In 2012, the knickers went into the museum, and NFL officials began wearing black pants for all games.

While NFL official uniforms may seem stable over the last century, there have acutally been several changes over the years.

Many thanks to the Gridiron Uniform Database for their very comprehensive resource detailing the uniforms of the past 100 years.

Check out more in our #NFL100 series

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"