NFL

The Strange Story on the Flak Jacket and Its NFL Debut

In recent years, the NFL has implemented various rule changes designed to protect the quarterback. Defenders can’t dive at a quarterback’s legs. They can’t drive the quarterback into the ground. All those changes serve the purpose of protecting the most important player on the field.

Back in the 1970s, a new product was introduced to the game that has saved countless quarterbacks from serious injury and missed playing time. We’re talking about the flak jacket and it debuted on the NFL stage in the 1978 playoffs in a very unusual way.

Dan Pastorini suffers painful injury

Heading down the stretch of the 1978 season, the Houston Oilers were in prime position to make a run in the playoffs with a 9-4 record when the Pittsburgh Steelers came to town. 

In a low-scoring affair with the game in the balance, all hope for the season and potential playoffs seemed to vanish on a single play. On the play, Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini dropped back to pass, looked to his left, and spotted an open receiver. A split-second after Pastorini released the ball, with his arm outstretched, Pittsburgh defensive tackle Steve Furness blasted Pastorini in his rib cage on the right side.

“It knocked the wind out of me, and I heard some cracking,” Pastorini told Peyton Manning on an episode of Peyton’s Places.

After the ball fell incomplete, Pastorini lie motionless on the Astrodome turf. The Houston medical team rushed on to the field to tend to its injured quarterback. For more than five minutes, Pastorini remained on his back.

Eventually, the quarterback rose to his feet and was helped by team doctors as he gingerly made his way to the sideline. Miraculously, after some time on the bench, Pastorini finished the game. X-rays later showed he suffered three broken ribs. 

The unexpected hospital visitor and a miracle cure

Dan Pastorini
Dan Pastorini of the Houston Oilers | Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Several days later, while lying in his hospital bed, someone unexpectedly knocked on the door. Pastorini said in walked two men—one carrying a medium-size brown paper bag and the other a baseball bat. 

“I was thinking the two men had bet the ranch on the game and they were going to pummel me to death and take me out inside the bag,” he joked.

Instead, the man, Byron Donzis, took the never-before-seen flak jacket out of the paper bag and placed it up against his chest. The man with the bat then stepped up and proceeded to whack Donzis and his protected chest three or four times with no ill-effect.

Pastorini, impressed by what he’d seen, said, “I’d like to have one of those.”

The flak jacket is born

Dan Pastorini
Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini

Donzis, who would eventually go on to develop more than two dozen patents, including thigh pads and shoulder pads, worked in an Army lab and wanted to protect athletes like soldiers. The original flak jacket design was a Seal Team life vest that included thin air pockets strategically positioned throughout the Kevlar-covered vest.

The theory was any impact would disperse throughout the vest instead of remaining at the initial point of impact. It worked.

Armed with military-grade protection, Pastorini returned to the Oilers lineup three weeks later and guided the team to a 17-9 victory over the Dolphins in the league’s first-ever Wild Card round. The following week the Oilers upended the New England Patriots advancing to the AFC Championship. In both contests, Pastorini said he knew the opposing defenses were targeting his ribs and testing out his new protective gear.

“They hit it. And then they looked at me and said, I guess it works,” he laughed. 

The Oilers lost in the AFC Championship game to the same Steelers team that had injured Pastorini a month earlier. But in defeat, Pastorini had won. He achieved victory just in his ability to play despite three broken ribs. All quarterbacks that followed like Peyton Manning won as well.