What does a 1970’s gumball machine have to do with arguably the best CFL helmet collection around? Quite a lot, actually.
The BC Lions @BCLions despite being the youngest CFL franchise (founded in '54 — counting Ottawa teams as one franchise) have the most helmets of any team in the @CFL.@pxw13@CflChuck @CFLUniMonitor@BCLionsDen@UniWatch @3DownNation @TravisLulay@CFL_News @UniWatch pic.twitter.com/Yldp1r7cFT
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 9, 2020
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.
The Toronto Argonauts are the oldest professional sports team in North America still using its original name (est. 1873). Here is their helmet history.@cfl@TorontoArgos@3DownNation @Argofans@ArgosAdmirals@TSNDaveNaylor@CflChuck@pxw13@CFLonTSN@ChrisBalenovich@UniWatch pic.twitter.com/csfwO5oJpR
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 5, 2020
“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.”
The Edmonton Football Team @EdmFootballTeam was founded in 1949 and is the 3rd youngest CFL franchise and arguably the most successful with 14 Grey Cups. Here is their helmet history. @cfl@CflChuck @56Parkies@CFLUniMonitor @pxw13 @Dave_CHED @CFL_News @WMoon1 @UniWatch pic.twitter.com/aqjWM8hekT
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 7, 2020
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.
The Calgary Stampeders of the CFL were founded in '45 and have used a variation of the running horse logo on every helmet since '68 except 1 & 2 game special helmets in '03 & '09.@calstampeders @CFL_Horsemen @CFL_News @CFLUniMonitor @CflChuck @pxw13@3DownNation@UniWatch pic.twitter.com/M4QSNoGXQT
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 11, 2020
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.
The original Ottawa football team was the Rough Riders ('31-'96) then Renegades ('02-'05) & now @REDBLACKS ('14-current). Here is the helmet history of all three. @cfl@CflChuck @pxw13 @CFL_4_Ever @REDBLACKSGM @DefendTheR@CFL_News@CFLUniMonitor@3DownNation@UniWatch pic.twitter.com/DFMErG9KDn
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 9, 2020
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.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have won the Grey Cup 11 times (inc. 2019) since founded in 1930 as the Winnipeg Football Club. Here is their helmet history. #ForTheW@CFL@Wpg_BlueBombers@CFL_News@CflChuck@pxw13@BomberHistory@BomberAlumni@BomberFanTed@Bomber_Reaper@UniWatch pic.twitter.com/0jOYc026nD
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 6, 2020
“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.
From the Alouettes ('46-'81) to the Concordes ('82-'85) back to the Alouettes ('86, '96-current), here is Montreal's helmet history. @MTLAlouettes @cfl@CflChuck@CFL_News@3DownNation@pxw13 @UniWatch @PhilHecken pic.twitter.com/BOvF2DleEs
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 4, 2020
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, HelmetHistory, to reflect his latest addition.
Saskatchewan @sskroughriders is the oldest professional football team in North America to have been continuously based west of St. Louis having been founded in 1910. Here is their helmet history.@3DownNation @cfl_news@CFLUniMonitor @CflChuck @pxw13 @sackatchawen @Jhus41 pic.twitter.com/kixYqZHxYO
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 10, 2020
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.
The @CFL experimented with US teams from '93-'95 (1 in '93, 4 in '94, 5 in '95). Here is the helmet history for Bham Barracudas, Sac Gold Miners, SA Texans, Mem Mad Dogs, Shreveport Pirates, LV Posse & Balt Stallions.@CFL_News @CFLUniMonitor @3DownNation @CflChuck @pxw13 pic.twitter.com/dNQGrlDXiR
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 13, 2020
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.
The Hamilton @Ticats were created in 1950 from the merger of the original Hamilton Football Club Tigers founded in 1869 and the upstart Hamilton Wildcats. Here is their helmet history. @CFL_News @CFLUniMonitor @CflChuck @pxw13 @3DownNation @ticatsfan7@Simoni_Lawrence pic.twitter.com/PKGO950ux1
— Blaise D'Sylva (@wtfcoach) September 12, 2020
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.