Uni Watch: Blue in the facemask.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 12 2004 11:03 AM

Uni Watch

Blue in the facemask.

A gray facemask for an NFL graybeard
A gray facemask for an NFL graybeard

The year's NFL playoffs have provided a nice last hurrah for Titans placekicker Gary Anderson, who has announced that this is his last season. At 44, Anderson is the league's oldest player, but Uni Watch is interested in him for other reasons. There are two distinctions—one plainly apparent, the other more subtle—between Anderson's facemask and those of his teammates. The most obvious aspect of Anderson's facemask is its austerity—he wears the old single-bar style. Once common among such stars as Joe Theisman and Lance Alworth, the single bar is now a fast-vanishing relic. In fact, it's no longer within NFL equipment guidelines, but Anderson is among a handful of kicking-game specialists who continue to wear it under a grandfather clause. (Others include punters Matt Turk of the Dolphins, Sean Landeta of the Rams, and Scott Player of the Cardinals, who wears his single bar almost as low as his chinstrap. Of greater interest to Uni Watch, however, is a less conspicuous detail: Look closely and you'll see that while the other Titans' facemasks are dark blue, Anderson's is gray, an uncharacteristic lapse of uniformity in today's tightly regimented NFL. Early NFL players, of course, played without facemasks. Although some sources in Uni Watch's library suggest that facemasks may have been developed as early as the mid-1930s, most agree that the first pro player to wear one was Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham, who was elbowed in the mouth during the first half of a 1953 game and took the field after halftime wearing a makeshift plastic face guard that had been devised by his coach, Paul Brown. The trend caught on quickly, and within a few years most players were wearing facemasks, although some were rudimentary at best and a few featured designs that would look odd to us today. There was no color standardization during this period, either across the league or within individual teams. Most facemasks were gray, but brown and white were not uncommon, and a few players favored clear acrylic or Plexiglas. Indeed, the cover of a 1957 issue of Sport magazine found three Chicago Bears wearing three different facemask colors. This hodgepodge continued until the late 1960s, by which point almost everyone was wearing gray. But this appears to have been more of a default than a conscious choice. It wasn't until 1974 that the facemask was elevated to the status of a full-fledged design element in a team's overall color palette and aesthetic scheme. That was the year the Chargers began wearing yellow facemasks —the first burst of color for this previously drab detail. Other teams slowly followed—more of a trickle than a wave. First came the Bills, who switched to blue facemasks in 1976. Then came the Redskins (yellow, 1978), Packers (green, 1980), Dolphins (teal, 1980), Oilers (red, 1981), Rams (blue, 1981), Lions (blue, 1983), and Seahawks (blue, 1983). Today 14 of the NFL's 32 teams wear colored facemasks, with 11 more wearing black and three wearing white. Only four teams sport the once-dominant gray. Well, make that four teams plus Gary Anderson. His gray bar is a bit of a mystery, especially since he spent the previous five seasons wearing a purple bar with the Vikings, and 13 of the 16 seasons before that wearing a black bar with the Steelers, so it's not as though this is his lucky gray facemask that he couldn't bear to stop using. And a spokesman for his helmet manufacturer, Riddell, says single-bar facemasks, while no longer produced in great quantity, are still available and that Anderson should have been able to get a blue one upon joining Tennessee last September.

Alas, calls last week to the Titans were unavailing. Apparently they were too busy getting ready for their next playoff game (as if that's more important than a player whose facemask is the wrong color!). And since they lost, Anderson has now played his last game, taking the mystery of his facemask into retirement with him.

Follow-up: Big thanks to all who responded to Uni Watch's recent call for hockey-related examples of uniform modification. As many readers pointed out, the NHL's more fisticuff-inclined players have often taken steps to make their unis better suited for brawling, such as cutting a jersey's side seams and then reattaching them with Velcro. (The resulting tearaway jersey comes off more easily in a fight, thereby preventing an opponent from pulling the jersey over one's head and using it as a straitjacket.) And several other readers noted that goaltenders have been known to sew extra material into their armpit and crotch regions, the better to snag incoming pucks. The very enterprising Ed Belfour, now of the Maple Leafs, has even been accused of running a string from his pants through his inner jersey to his gloves, causing his jersey to extend outward when he raised his arms. Rube Goldberg would no doubt be proud.

Questions or suggestions for Uni Watch? Send mail here.

Paul Lukas writes about food, travel, and consumer culture for a variety of publications.

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