Equipment Needed To Play American Football

Unlike most sports, football requires players to be fully padded to prevent injuries from high impact hits. In order to best protect ourselves, equipment is mandatory when playing football.

The equipment needed to play football is a helmet, shoulder pads, thigh pads, hip pads, knee pads, tailbone pad, compression shorts, and cleats.

In this article, we’re going to show you all the pieces of equipment you’ll need in order to play football.

Equipment Needed To Play American Football


Football Helmet

One of the most important pieces of equipment is the helmet. It protects your head from collisions with other players. A properly fitting helmet is important to avoid head injuries including concussions.

For a full recap of helmet safety and how they can help protect your head, we wrote about it here. A helmet comes standard with a face mask and a chin strap. The chin strap can be buttoned or buckled in tight, depending on which style of helmet you purchase.

It’s important to make sure the chinstrap fits comfortably – not too high on the chin and not too far down on the throat. Helmets are completely customized to fit the size and shape of your head.

We recommend getting a custom fit helmet from one of the major helmet retailers (Riddell, Schutt, Vicis) to ensure your head is protected.

Shoulder Pads

Shoulder Pads

Shoulder pads not only protect shoulders but the chest plate as well. Unlike other sports that use shoulder pads, football shoulder pads are thicker and have a bit more padding. Different players tend to have different size shoulder pads.

Skill players (quarterbacks, wide receivers, and defensive backs) tend to have smaller shoulder pads, as their position sees far less contact than other positions. Running backs, offensive/defensive lineman and linebackers will have thicker pads because they play a more physical position.

When fitting for shoulder pads, it’s important make sure the pads cover the entire shoulder, upper back and the chest plate.

Game or Practice Pants

Game pants in football

Game Pants and practice pants are often distributed by the coach. If you’re new to football, there are 4 pockets inside the pants that hold 2 different types of pads.

  1. Thigh Pads
  2. Knee Pads

Thigh pads are often thick pads that cover the upper thigh. The pants will have two slots to fill these pads.

Thigh pads differ in size, be sure to measure the pads to your thigh’s before putting them in the pants.

Knee pads are often the hardest to get in the pants. They’re often smaller in size compared to the thigh pads.

Insert the round part of the pad into the pants, with the square part covering the upper knee. As mentioned, there are 4 total pads in the game pants.


Girdle in football

The girdle, often unseen, goes on underneath the game or practice pants. As the game pants have 4 pockets for the knee and thigh pads, the girdle will hold the remaining 2 types of pads:

  • Hip Pads
  • Tail Pad

Hip pads are a unique shape, which covers the entire hip. Two pads are placed on each side of the hip. Newer girdles are often a different shape and come built into the pads. We’ve reviewed different girdles here which may be more comfortable than older traditional girdles.

The tail pad is often a long narrow pad that fits right above the butt. Its job is to protect the tail bone from any contact. Although it’s rare to be hit in this area during a game, it’s important to have it covered.


Cleats in football

Not necessarily protection, but cleats can act as ankle support for players with weak ankles. If you spat your ankles, then you don’t necessarily need to worry about this.

However, high top cleats can give better ankle support than low top cleats. Be sure to buy your cleats according to the support your ankle needs.

We recommend high ankle support in case a player does happen to roll or fall on your ankle. When a player signs up for football, he/she will be given all the appropriate pads above.

However, a coach will NOT provide cleats, those must be purchased separately.

Optional Football Equipment

Not required by rule, players may wear these bits of extra padding to protect different parts of their bodies.

Rib Protectors

rip protectors

Rib protectors, also known as a “flak jacket”, often protect the area that shoulder pads don’t cover – the side of the body and the ribs. Running backs and quarterbacks are most vulnerable for rib contact, as they will be tackled from all angles.

Cowboy/Butterfly Collar

cowboy butterfly collar

The Cowboy Collar, neck roll and neck board all provide stability to the neck from bending backwards on contact. Often worn in the 70’s and 80’s, the cowboy collar has slowly made it’s way out of football.

However, players like Leighton Vander Esch of the Dallas Cowboys can be seen wearing the neck piece.

Back Plate

Back plate

Back plates protect the lower back. A full description of back plates and how they’re currently used in today’s game can be found in our piece here. Often worn as a fashion piece, back plates connect to the back of the shoulder pads and hang down.

Knee Brace

knee brace in football

One of the more expensive items on the list, knee braces are often worn by an offensive lineman. These braces help stabilize the knee in case a defensive player falls into or rolls upon their knee.

Here is an example of knee brace that can be worn. As mentioned, it’s a bit expensive, but maybe worth it for lineman trying to protect their knees.


Football pads are mandatory to participate in a football game. These pieces of equipment help prevent major injuries from the contact they will endure.

All of the equipment should fit properly and be worn at all times during practice and game situations.

Related Q & A

Why Don’t Football Players Wear Knee Pads?

Players in professional leagues often choose to not wear knee pads, in the belief that it slows them down. It leaves their knees exposed for big hits and general contact.

This is typically only allowed in professional leagues and mandated for all players in college, high school, and youth development leagues.

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