During the third quarter of a holiday weekend game, television cameras fixed on Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens lining up for another snap. This was no surprise. The second-year receiver was en route to the most prolific night for a Steelers wideout in six seasons, for one. Even more conspicuously, Pickens had some ornaments on display: A pair of mouth guards – one green, one red – dangling from his face mask.
The 22-year-old may have many distinguishing characteristics, but two mouths is not one of them. At best, one of the pieces of silicone would protect his teeth while the other served as a seasonally appropriate accessory. Sure enough, Pickens tucked in the green mouthpiece, and the red one was just…there. Two days before Christmas, hung without a care.
“What’s better than one mouth guard?” read the caption on the Steelers’ official TikTok account, capturing the six-second clip for posterity. “2 mouth guards.”
One giant leap for in-game swag, perhaps, but hardly the start of a trend that’s giving everyone something to chew on. Watch any NFL or college football game and you’re nearly guaranteed to see players – particularly those standing farther away from the ball – turn a protective piece of equipment into a fashion statement. The utility of preventing serious dental work and concussions has given way to personality expression, by way of a chunk of rubber used in a way no manufacturer intended.
There were cornerback Patrick Surtain and receiver Stefon Diggs matched up during a Week 10 Monday night game, with Surtain’s white mouthpiece matching the Denver Broncos’ away jerseys and Diggs’ light blue guard contrasting with the Buffalo Bills’ royal blue home colors – and neither Pro Bowler actually using the guard for anything but aesthetics. There’s the binky-style guard worn by DK Metcalf during his rookie season with the Seattle Seahawks. There was Carolina Panthers edge rusher Brian Burns wearing a guard with fangs printed on it a few years ago. There’s Washington Commanders receiver Dyami Brown sporting the two-mouthpieces-at-once look last season. There’s Detroit Lions safety Brian Branch knocking off an opponent’s helmet this year while a lime green mouthpiece stuck out of his own head gear, a look the rookie brought with him from the University of Alabama.
“My little trademark,” is how Branch described it to Detroit-area media inquiring about the choice. In a league that strictly regulates equipment and gameday dress codes, the mouth guard avant-garde appears to be letting loose.
“I’m glad some people can use that stuff to express themselves,” said Carolina Panthers tight end Tommy Tremble, who had one prevailing thought when he saw his teammate Burns sporting a face full of mouth guard fangs:
That’s just a dope concept.
Mouth guards have come a long way from the earliest models worn by boxers – made from cotton, tape, sponge and small wood pieces – around the turn of the 20th century. Acrylic resin mouth guards became available in the late 1940s, and in 1960, the American Dental Association recommended latex mouth guards for all contact spots. Two years later, mouth guards became mandatory for high school football players. The NCAA currently requires mouth guards for football, field hockey and lacrosse and recommends them for ice hockey and wrestling. So even if a football player employs one as decor, he still has to use one the way it’s meant to be used, too.
The NFL, however, has not made mouth guards mandatory, citing the lack of significant scientific evidence showing they prevent concussions in football. Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Austin Corbett, the team’s NFLPA representative, believes a low percentage of players across the league actually wear one.
The pacifier-style piece – a combination of lipguard and mouth guard – in particular has spurred the trend toward bright colors and wild designs. If players don’t like the feel, more and more of them like the look. “I feel like if somebody busts my lip or something like that, then I’ve gotta do better,” said Carolina Panthers safety Sam Franklin, who occasionally hooks a colorful guard to his facemask but never puts it in his mouth. “They’ve got a good dental plan. So if your teeth get knocked out, they’ll put (them) back in tomorrow.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when players began moving away from simple, do-it-yourself, boil-and-bite mouth guards in favor of something more elaborate. Some still remember Vince Young’s orange mouth guard, which nearly synced up with Texas’ burnt-orange color scheme in the 2005 national championship game at the Rose Bowl. And young athletes have never shied away from prying their parents’ wallets open to look like their idols. “When I was in little league, you’d see your favorite running backs or your favorite quarterbacks wear those binkies and you’re like, ‘Man, I wanna do that,’” Carolina Panthers guard Brady Christensen said. Hence an industry valued at $3.71 billion globally in 2021, according to a report by Polaris Market Research.
If there was an inflection point for this era of oral fixation, Jay Turkbas guesses it arrived around 2015. That’s when the senior vice president of innovation at California-based company Shock Doctor remembers mouth guard graphics and designer touches starting to become ubiquitous. “It was a slow burn from there, and then it started to speed up,” Turkbas said. “The last four years it’s really taken off.”
It’s given rise to a movement that’s both a trickle-down and trickle-up. On the one hand, a high-profile player such as Metcalf pores over a selection of mouth guards sent by the company Battle Sports during his first training camp, spies a conspicuous pink-and-yellow pacifier-style model and uses it during a game – “I just thought it was cool to wear,” he said – and the copycats follow.
But Shock Doctor also tries to keep up with teenagers’ tastes by surveying high school players at 7-on-7 tournaments, soliciting their opinions on dozens of different designs. The pros may have set the trend, but the teens can turn it into a tidal surge. “Instead of old guys like us deciding what to do,” Turkbas said, “we let the kids decide.”
Among Shock Doctor’s wilder offerings: chrome and iridescent mouth guards and lipguards featuring 3D stitching, chains and charms, including dollar signs and crosses. There’s also a Kool-Aid flavored mouth guard.
They’re generally hard to miss, for sure. Which is the idea.
The actual point of mouth guards has never been more beside the point than it is now.
Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison, Jr. finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting after the 2023 college football season and is expected to be one of the first names called in the 2024 NFL Draft, bringing production and style with him. Harrison complied with NCAA regulations by wearing a traditional mouth guard but also hewed to the trends with an unused, brightly colored guard hanging off his facemask during games. It remains to be seen if Harrison becomes another skill position pro willing to prioritize comfort and flair above dental health, though among players there’s certainly a groundswell behind the idea that the risks don’t outweigh the swag.
There are obvious potential drawbacks to letting stray equipment pieces dangle in the open. Chicago Bears receiver Javon Wims was ejected from a 2020 game for throwing punches at New Orleans safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and snatching Gardner-Johnson’s mouthpiece off his helmet — which was retaliation for Gardner-Johnson pulling Wims’ mouth guard off his facemask earlier in the game.
As the Panthers’ Tremble notes, receivers and defensive backs work in space, which reduces the odds of anything getting tugged or tangled on a given play. And then there’s the basic job requirement of those positions: Running. A lot of running.
“Sometimes with the pacifiers that are big around the league, it’s hard to breathe,” Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Frank Darby said. “Once we’re in tempo, hurry-up plays, that’s too much going on, when you’re trying to take your mouthpiece out, put it back in. Nah, just leave it out. Because we rarely head-butt or really have to get into something. People say it’s unsafe because you could lose a tooth or something like that. But that doesn’t normally happen to a receiver.”
Or as the Lions’ Branch put it to reporters, regarding his mouth guard-in-helmet look: “I put it up there because I can’t really breathe with it in – especially if we’re on the field for a long time.”
The American Dental Association, for what it’s worth, says evidence on the role of mouth guards in reducing concussions among athletes is mixed, and less consistent than the evidence of reduced orofacial and dental injuries. In a five-year study involving 3,000 youth ice hockey players in Alberta, University of Calgary researchers found a 28 percent lower incident rate of concussions among players who wore mouth guards. But one of the lead researchers, Ash Kolstad, cautioned that he wouldn’t extrapolate the evidence beyond youth hockey, in which “wearing one looks like it’s better than not wearing one.”
Many NFL players seem willing to grit their teeth and bear what comes. But traditionalists and converts such as veteran NFL safety Vonn Bell, who switched from a pacifier-style mouth guard to a custom piece similar to an orthodontic retainer, will not go extinct. “When I get older in the league, I want to be able to talk,” Bell said, laughing. “Being swaggy and cool don’t matter no more.” And interior linemen on both sides of the line of scrimmage almost certainly won’t follow the trends, lest their down-to-down, hand-to-hand combat cost them a tooth or even a piece of their tongue if they bite down hard in the wrong spot.
And the NFL’s latitude only will extend so far; the league still prohibits mouth guards with logos or personal messages. Which Carolina Panthers’ punt returner Ihmir Smith-Marsette found out the hard way, after wearing a green mouthpiece bearing the logo for the football equipment company NXTRND in Week 4. The transgression cost Smith-Marsette $5,000. “If they’d have warned me, I wouldn’t have worn it,” he said. “I like my money.” Smith-Marsette also likes his flair: He continued wearing the NXTRND guards during warmups, when he wouldn’t get flagged by the NFL’s uniform inspectors.
But out there in the great wide open of football’s future? With millions of aspiring football players awaiting the next innovations in mouth-to-mouth inspiration?
Where there are no real rules, only one thing matters.
“It’s different,” Metcalf said.
The Athletic’s Josh Kendall contributed to this story
(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Tom Hauck / Getty Images; Mark Alberti / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)