How super fan Blaise D’Sylva developed the best CFL helmet collection ever

Photo courtesy: Blaise D'Sylva

What does a 1970’s gumball machine have to do with arguably the best CFL helmet collection around? Quite a lot, actually.

Growing up in Seattle, 54-year-old Blaise D’Sylva didn’t have a chance to watch many CFL games, but as an avid football fan, he lived and breathed his local teams — the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Huskies. Back in those days, it was a different era for sports merchandise so fans had to take what they could get.

For a young D’Sylva, that meant 25 cent “gumball” machines that didn’t give you gum but instead a little collectible helmet with tiny team logo stickers on the sides and a small, white face mask.

Although he was actually born in Toronto, D’Sylva left Canada at such a young age that he has no recollection of the country or his native city. His passport is not the reason he’s a CFL fan — he owes his passion for the Canadian game to Warren Moon.

“Living in Seattle at the time, I was always a Seahawks fan, but I also loved the Washington Huskies,” D’Sylva told 3DownNation. “The first college game I actually ever attended was Warren Moon’s first game of his senior year. I was twelve years old and instantly hooked. When he went to Canada to play for Edmonton, I naturally cheered them on, wanting him to have success.”

Moon wasn’t the only college quarterback D’Sylva followed north, either. As players like Moon, Damon Allen and Doug Flutie took the CFL by storm, D’Sylva followed along. He continued to keep a close eye up north during his university days at Washington State and later in life when he made his career in Chicago.

Originally, a football helmet collection was never in the cards, but a hobby was sparked when D’Sylva stumbled across an eBay auction listing a newer version of the old “gumball” helmets he used to collect as a kid. The ad was for mini-helmets called “pocket pros” and featured sets of current Riddell helmets from the NFL and various college conferences.

With a feeling of nostalgia, D’Sylva thought it would be neat to not only rebuild his childhood collection with the newer pocket pros, but add to it with other leagues and college teams. A few days later, he saw another post for every Arena Football League team that someone had made by customizing the Riddell helmets. He figured that would be cool to have as well and that’s when things really took off.

“Pretty soon I realized the sky could be the limit in terms of what I collected,” he said.

The seller from whom he purchased the AFL collection messaged him asking what else he wanted. That spawned a relationship that has lasted 17 years and resulted in thousands of helmets.

Today, D’Sylva’s football helmet collection is over 6,000 strong and spans every outdoor football league from the NFL to the CFL, NCAA, USFL, WFL, XFL, NFLE, WLAF, the Continental League (which played in the 1960’s) and the AAFC (which played in the 1940’s). At one point in time he also had helmets for the various indoor leagues (AFL, Arena 2, PSFL, IFL, SFL) but wound up getting rid of them due to a lack of space.

The helmets, which are not for sale, are kept and displayed on wall shelves in his garage. With 108 cases on one wall (each holding 40 helmets) and another 60 cases on a second, there’s a a lot to see.

As for the actual process of creation, D’Sylva is quick to note that he has nothing to do production, and that everything is done through the same seller he’s been using for almost two decades.

“Basically, my guy gets the Riddell pocket pro sets, strips the paint, repaints them and applies whatever decals are needed,” said D’Sylva.

A couple years ago, he added a second person to produce helmets because there is so much to be done.

Initially, he was content to let the seller do the research, using sites like HelmetHut and NationalChamps. But as of 2016, D’Sylva felt the need to get more involved himself.

The football fanatic threw himself headfirst into historical fact-checking. In order for him to make the helmet and consider it to be historically accurate, he feels the need to find a picture to authenticate it. When D’Sylva finds a clear picture of a helmet, he gets it made, adds it to his collection and updates his website, HelmetHistoryto reflect his latest addition.

When asked about the CFL helmets specifically, D’Sylva notes that he started really focusing on the league for his collection about a decade ago. Not only does his collection include all nine current teams, but it also features franchises such as the Concordes, Rough Riders, Renegades and every U.S. franchise from the Stallions to the Barracudas.

Ultimately D’Sylva wants his collection to include a copy of every single type of helmet every football team has used — ever. At times, that’s meant getting creative.

“We had to make prototype helmets for NFL teams from the early 1920’s because they simply didn’t have logos,” he said.

With an average of over 300 new helmets introduced each year between 130 college football programs and pro leagues, there is always an excuse to continue building the collection.

Although COVID-19 hasn’t slowed the growth of his collection, running out of space in his garage is a constant concern. Even if his helmets aren’t for sale, D’Sylva will continue to share them on social media, update his website, and, in a perfect world, one day realize his dream of taking the collection on tour.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).