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Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of Paul Lukas' interview with decal-maker Chris Willis.
Paul Lukas: How'd you get into this business?
Chris Willis: About 20 years ago I was working at a screen-printing shop in Alabama, and we kinda backed into making football-helmet decals. We weren't doing that originally, but someone came in and asked if we could do it. It was one of those deals where we said, "Sure!" And then, as soon as he walked out, we looked at each other and said, "How the heck are we gonna do that?"
PL: Was this just for a local high school team or something like that?
CW: Yeah. This guy wasn't happy with his current supplier, so he was looking for a new one. Anyway, we tried a few things, and they were mostly unsuccessful. But then, just by coincidence, we got a sales call from a vinyl company that was trying to sell us this new material. The real end use for it was supposed to be hard hats. It turned out to be perfect for helmet decals, and it was just being introduced to the market, so we were in the right place at the right time.
PL: So you just kind of fell into it.
CW: Yeah. The great thing about this new material was that you could peel it off of the helmet without leaving any glue or other residue behind. So it was easy to remove or replace. Also, vinyl tends to shrink a little bit, so the vinyl and adhesive would shrink at different rates, and you'd eventually have this little edge of exposed adhesive that would pick up dirt and grass and all. So at that time, this new material was a huge improvement. And then I met this collector guy who said, "Listen, you've got something here. You should try calling some NFL teams and see if you can do decals for them." And my boss said, "Listen, don't waste your time with that -- you can't just call an NFL team out of the blue and expect to do business with them." But fortunately, I was young and stupid -- I was still only about 25 or 26 years old at the time -- so when the boss went on vacation, I dialed Dallas information, got the Cowboys' phone number, asked to speak to the equipment manager, and they put me through, just like that. It was so easy.
PL: So did the Cowboys become your first NFL customer?
CW: No. They said, "We're all right with what we've got." And about four or five more teams told me that until someone bit, and that was the Vikings. Their equipment manager said, "Yes, we're having terrible problems with our helmet decals, so let's see what you've got." So we ended up working with them -- that was around 1987. And then the next year, we picked up the Falcons, and then the Saints in midseason. By the third or fourth year, we had about half the teams in the league.
PL: So that was in Alabama -- how'd you end up in Houston?
CW: Our success attracted the interest of some guys who wanted to start a new company in Texas, so they hired me away in 1991, and I was able to pull most of my customers with me. Eventually I started my own company, Athletic Decals, in 1999.
PL: Are you now the sole decal provider for the NFL?