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Been paying close attention to the Bears this season? If so, you might have noticed that several of their players appear to have horizontal ribbing across their shoulder yokes. The ribbing, which is worn primarily by linemen, has appeared on all three of the team's jerseys: home, road (look closely -- it's hard to see, but it's there), and alternate. What gives?
"There's no secret technology involved," says Lauren Antonellis, who works in product development for Reebok, the NFL's uni manufacturer. "The Bears' equipment manger sends out a few of the jerseys for custom alterations. The stripes you're seeing are actually stitch lines -- they're darts that have been sewn in to eliminate any excess 'grab' fabric."
This explanation, which was confirmed by a Bears spokesman, fits into a long tradition of uni modification at Soldier Field. As loyal Uni Watch reader Tom O'Grady explains, "The Bears' offensive linemen in the mid-1980s -- Tom Thayer, Keith Van Horne, Jimbo Covert, Jay Hilgenberg -- would have the trainer use navy blue nylon twine and thick knitting needles to sew their jerseys tighter in the shoulder and underarm area, to prevent holding (see how distorted their jersey numbers were). After the game, the trainer would cut them out from the twine, like a boxing trainer cutting off the gloves. My parents lived in the same building with the Bears' seamstress at that time, a 90-year-old woman who would patch the uniforms back together."
All of which raises an interesting question: How much can a uniform be modified? "We have strict guidelines prohibiting any obvious, visual changes to the jerseys, so for the most part the jerseys are not altered," says Antonellis, the Reebok product developer. "But we know a player can modify his protective equipment midway into the season, players' body weights change, and there are extremes in the physiques of these elite athletes -- for example, a quarterback might have one shoulder significantly more developed than the other. So some players request or require customization, which we are aware of and allow, as long as the alteration is for fit and doesn't affect the integrity of the design."
So how do these alterations get executed? "The equipment managers are the ones who initiate alterations for individual players," says Antonellis. "Many teams employ seamstresses who repair the jerseys after a game and in some cases do these types of alterations too. The guidelines for alterations are noted in the equipment managers' operations manuals, and Reebok and the league meet multiple times a year to review these guidelines, address any specific questions or situations that may arise, and monitor the alterations to make sure they fall within compliance. We have an open rapport with the equipment managers, so we discuss a lot of these situations as they come up. In the case of the Bears, I believe this is the first season they've altered the linemen's jerseys using this method."
Actually, it's not -- Bears spokesman Jim Crisman says the team has been using this technique for "a long time." And sure enough, a bit of Uni Watch photo research turned up some 1995 shots of Richard Dent, whose shoulder ribbing is even shown in this painting.
As serious uni fans are well aware, going the extra mile for an extra-tight fit is hardly unique to the Bears. Jim Burt of the Giants, among many others, used to have his jersey stretched so tight that the numbers began to warp and you could see the seams where some extra-curricular tailoring had been done. Custom drawstrings were even more evident on Bill Romanowski's jerseys. And the Steelers reportedly keep a sewing machine in their locker room, to keep their offensive linemen's jerseys as tight as possible.
Then there are the modifications that are more aesthetic than functional, many of which Uni Watch has covered in recent weeks: Sean Taylor's socks and facemask, Jerry Porter's tape-striped belt, Desmond Howard's tape-striped towel, and the whole spats phenomenon.
As for uniform modifications in other sports, here's a selective rundown:
• Baseball: Uni alterations on the diamond date back at least as far as Ty Cobb sharpening his spikes. In a more benign move, 1950s Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski routinely cut the sleeves from his jersey. Another Red, Deion Sanders, shortened the sleeves on his road jersey as a tribute to Jackie Robinson in 1997 (and when the league office objected, the rest of the Reds shortened their sleeves in solidarity, which had the odd side-effect of forcing the team's sleeve patches up onto their shoulders). In his 1970 classic, "Ball Four," Jim Bouton reported that his teammate Dick Baney took his uniform to a tailor so he wouldn't "look like a clown," and that many other players sliced the bottoms of their stirrups and had extra fabric sewn in, so the hosiery could be stretched higher. That way, wrote Bouton, "your legs look long and cool instead of dumpy and hot."
Today's players bypass the hosiery question altogether by keeping their pants as low as possible, a look they often achieve by adding elastic stirrup straps to their pant cuffs, adding Velcro to their shoes, or widening their pant cuffs with a hat-stretcher so their pants will drape more like slacks.
And then there's Pedro Martinez, who likes his sleeves extra-roomy. He used to cut slits in them, but the league office put the kibosh on that, so he started having an extra panel of fabric sewn into them instead. When he joined the Mets last season, the extra bit of fabric was replaced by a piece of stretch mesh. Think of him as the antithesis of NFL linemen.
• Basketball: The rather minimalist basketball uni doesn't lend itself to much modification. But clutchability concerns, much like in the NFL, occasionally lead to small changes. "NBA players like Kevin Garnett and Shaq sometimes put Velcro on the bottoms of their jerseys and their inner waistbands, to make grabbing their uniforms more difficult," says Tom O'Grady. "Sometimes you'll see the Velcro on game-used jerseys that are up for auction."
• Hockey: Hockey modifications fall into two primary camps. First come the NHL's brawlers, many of whom have taken steps to make their unis better suited for fisticuffs. A classic method: cutting a jersey's side seams and then reattaching them with Velcro. This essentially creates tearaway jersey, which comes off more easily in a fight, thereby preventing the straitjacket effect. And then there are the goaltenders, some of whom have been known to sew extra material into their armpit and crotch regions, the better to snag incoming pucks.
As noted in several of these stories, the key player in most uni modifications -- and the unsung hero of all sorts of uniform developments -- is the equipment manager. As Uni Watch has learned over the years, equipment managers can be a tight-lipped bunch, but the always-amazing Helmet Hut site includes some interview transcripts with old-school NFL equipment retirees, who have some pretty cool stories to tell. You can access the interviews here.
In case you were wondering: The weird metallic-topped jerseys that several schools have been wearing in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge are the latest brainstorm from those geniuses at Nike. Uni Watch actually likes the Ohio State design, since silver is one of the school's colors, but most of the others are a joke, and the overall effect -- just like with those stupid mismatched-sleeve football jerseys -- is to create a bunch of Team Nike clones. Fortunately, these are just temporary designs for this one tournament.
Meanwhile: As expected, Uni Watch's preliminary rundown two weeks ago of schools wearing new basketball uniforms this season (Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Central Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska and Evansville, plus Auburn is wearing a new centennial patch) was woefully incomplete.
Fortunately, readers have helped fill in a lot of the gaps. Additional schools wearing new duds this year include Marquette (new logo on left leg of shorts), Cincinnati (uni number font changing from this to this), Boston College (going from this to this), New Mexico State, Western Kentucky (a bit of mesh on the side, plus a centennial logo on the right leg), Michigan State (vertical striping moving outward, from this to this), Georgetown (home, road), Pitt (whose new unis also include a centennial patch), George Washington, Colorado (home, road, alternate), Tulane (home, road), and Northern Iowa (side piping changing from straight to wavy, and the uni number font changing from block to rounded).
Plus Texas is wearing a centennial jersey patch, Maryland is wearing a sesquicentennial patch below the "M" on their shorts, and Arizona is wearing a "00" memorial jersey patch in honor of Shawntinice Polk, who died in September.
Big thanks to all who contributed, including Jeremy Iwen, C. Trent Rosecrans, Billy C. Potter, Alan Edmonson, Miles Bern, Simon J. Torres, Jonathan Gault, Patrick Ransdell, Zack Kurland, Haseeb Omar, Robert Lintott, Mike Chow, Dennis Budell, Paul Munoz, Josh Judd, and Jason Yander.
Uni News Ticker
Lots of readers have inquired about the "V" that appears on the back of Fresno State's helmet. The short answer is that it stands for "Valley"; a slightly more detailed answer is available here. Speaking of which, Blake Warren notes that during Fresno's game against USC, Reggie Bush wore two white undersleeves during the first half but only had one sleeve in the second half. And speaking of Bush, you probably already knew that the "619" inscribed on his eye-black patches refers to the area code in San Diego, his hometown. But get this: According to a New York Times article, Bush doesn't write the numbers on the patches himself -- "he has instructed the Trojans' equipment coordinator" to do it. No word on whether someone also cuts Bush's food for him, ties his shoelaces, or accompanies him to the men's room. Chris Hope of the Steelers has been wearing a very odd sock style lately. The Giants, who weren't listed on the NFL's original alternate-jersey schedule for this season, are now slated to wear their red alternates this Sunday against the Cowboys. Speaking of the Giants: Instead of adding a new memorial patch for co-owner Bob Tisch, they took the patch they were already wearing in honor of Wellington Mara and updated it to create a dual memorial. Ohio State wore an "RM" helmet decal on Nov. 19, in honor of Ray Mendoza, a former OSU wrestler who was killed in Iraq. The Nationals will be wearing new blue batting practice jerseys next season. The good news is that this is a big improvement over the bright-red eyesores they wore this year; the bad news is that the red design has become the basis for a new alternate game jersey, which will be worn primarily on Sundays (and will be paired with a new alternate cap). In more MLB news, the Twins have just unveiled a new batting practice jersey and alternate home vest for next season. And by the time you read this, the Brewers should be getting ready to introduce their new alternate Sunday uniform. Expect it to look a lot like this old design, complete with the ball-in-glove "mb" cap logo, only with a button-front jersey instead of a pullover, and conventionally belted pants. And although it hasn't been officially announced yet, the Royals are getting rid of their vests and, in a move that the Reds and Mets could learn from, are dropping all the black accents from their unis. If you go to their Web site and play the second video clip on the right side of the page, you'll see Mike Sweeney wearing the new home uniform, and the Royals Corner blog has this photo of the new road design. The Cubs didn't wear player names on the backs of their home jerseys in 2005. So when they recently held press conferences to announce the free agent signings of Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry, the name-inclusive jerseys raised some eyebrows in uni circles. By contrast, when a player signs with the Red Sox, who also have nameless home jerseys, the press conference often features a road jersey, or else the player poses with a home jersey facing forward. And the Yankees, who never wear player names, usually just have the player wear the jersey instead of holding it up for the photographers, as was the case when they introduced Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, A-Rod, Carl Pavano, Hideki Matsui and Randy Johnson. Of course, the Giants have nameless home jerseys too. Uni Watch will be happy to report on their press conference protocol if and when they ever sign anybody. Logo Creep Alert: Gordon Wood reports that several British soccer stadiums have painted seats that create logo patterns of the home team's uniform supplier. A typical example: Celtic Park in Glasgow. Seth Wiley checks in with an interesting observation regarding the crêpe paper-esque side piping on the new Kansas basketball unis: "An insightful genius on the Phog.net messageboard determined that the piping is actually a representation of the double-helix DNA model, and is therefore a subtle rebuke of the Kansas Board of Education's decision to teach intelligent design." Looks like Donté Stallworth was using a rather makeshift arrangement to keep his pants up on Nov. 6. Indiana wore throwback helmets on Nov. 19. Repeat after Uni Watch: NFL teams should never wear monochromatic uni designs. Add Saints QB Aaron Brooks to the list of players who've worn two towels at once (joining Trent Green and Bob Griese). Interesting observation from Matt Edwards, who notes that the Harvard football team pairs Reebok jerseys with Russell Athletic pants. Best memorial ever: In Western Kentucky's game against Georgia on Nov. 26, all WKU players wore the name "Rumph" on the backs of their jerseys (you can sort of get a look at it here), in honor of former teammate Danny Rumph, who died earlier this year (with thanks to Casey Hannigan). Nice catch by Jonathan Carone, who noticed something Uni Watch had missed: The Texas football and baseball teams both have separate sets of footwear, depending on which jerseys they wear. They go with white shoes for their white jerseys but wear black shoes with their orange jerseys. Virginia Tech and Florida State will be wearing this totally bogus jersey patch on Saturday. Like, why not include the Alltel Stadium logo while they're at it? One last big of logo creep (courtesy of Mark Evans): It's nice that the NFL's Web site includes diagrams of officials' hand signals, but was it really necessary for the illustrations to show the refs wearing swoosh-branded shoes? Joe Hilseberg notes that while the rest of the Ravens have been wearing the team's 10th-anniversary patch, Deion Sanders has been going patchless.
• From Trevor Carah: "I was the one who provided the information regarding Michigan State's defense-only "S" decal. But now a different decal (perhaps a shield?) is showing up on the offensive side of the ball. I think they're doing it to taunt those of us who care about this sort of thing."
• Several readers have asked why a few Nevada players wear a silver stripe on their helmets, while most of their teammates remain stripe-free. The stripe is known as a Striker Award, and is given to players who perform at a high level for three consecutive games -- a standard the school is apparently quite proud of. "With those other schools, it's like, 'If you recover a fumble, here's a sticker,' or 'If you score a touchdown, here's a sticker,'" explains one of the athletic department's media relations reps. "Our award is much harder to get -- we've only given out five or six of them all year."
• From Chance Michaels: "In 1969, Wisconsin had the regular cardinal red helmets for most of the players. But a black helmet, called the 'Savage Award,' was given to the most aggressive player of the game, who could wear it from that point on. Each week, there would be one more black helmet taking the field. Couldn't have been that popular, since it only lasted one year. In 1970, both the cardinal and black helmets were gone."
• After Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry rewarded select defensive players with a black stripe and black helmet logo in 1985 and '86, he used a similar system at Kentucky, beginning around 1990, as Mike Barnhisel explains: "Defensive players could earn the right to a black-outlined 'K' on their helmet, along with additional black stripes and a black facemask." This design became the entire team's regular helmet design from 1993 through 1996.
• From Steve Moore: "Pride stickers extend to college hockey as well. I'm a Boston University grad, and here's a photo. The paw prints (Terriers, get it?) come for blocking a shot, making a big goal, killing a penalty, etc."
• And from Trevor Ulmer: "In the Finnish Elite Hockey League, the leading scorer from each team wears a gold helmet, while his teammates wear the regular team color. The player wearing the helmet can change every game with a change in the team's top scorer, but I don't think they change during a game."
Give 'Em a Hand(warmer)
Readers may recall that Uni Watch's recent discussion of football hand-warmers and gloves included a plea for the return of pockets sewn into the jersey. Mere hours after that column was posted, several members of the Vikings, including Mewelde Moore, wore jersey pockets during a cold game at Lambeau Field. And last Sunday, Laveranues Coles sported the pocketed style as well. Vive le pockets!
As for the object of Uni Watch's scorn -- the oh-so-wussy waist-mounted hand-warmer -- it appears the first team to wear it was the Tampa Bay Bucs, whose equipment manager, Frank Pupello, came up with the idea. "It was quite useful when the pitiful Bucs had to travel north to Lambeau and Soldier Field for December beatings," explains reader Rick Milleman. Of course, for years the Bucs were famous for not being able to win a cold-weather game, so it couldn't have helped very much.
Meanwhile, there was lots of commentary regarding football gloves:
• From Trevor Wells: "How can you have an article on NFL gloves and not include Danny Wuerffel, who played his pro career Michael Jackson-style -- one glove on his throwing hand at all times."
• From Mike Menapace: "During the early to mid-'80s, the Washington Redskins receivers took to wearing scuba diving gloves. The Neoprene was thin enough to give them sufficient flexibility -- despite the gloves' 1/8-inch thickness, the wearer could still pick up a dime off a flat surface. In addition, they were warmer than golf gloves, since those are primarily made for summer use, and they gripped the football very well."
• From Doug Donahoo: "Doug Flutie used to wear fiberglass cutter's gloves during his CFL days. I remember him wearing a pair in the Grey Cup, where it was literally blizzard-like conditions on the field. I believe those, of any gloves, give the most freedom of movement for the hand and the best gripping ability." Ian Potter says several other CFL players, including Donald Narcisse and Ray Elgaard of the Saskatchewan Roughriders also wore glass cutter's gloves during this period.
• From Xavier A. Hunter: "Concerning the slits in Keenan McCardell's gloves, that's most likely a tear. The gloves fit a little on the snug side and there's not really any such thing as a true fit. Anyone having big hands is going to have a problem. How do I know? I wear the same league-issued gloves myself, as a member of the Houston Texans Bull Pen Pep Band."
•And from Sameer Rawal: "A number of hockey goalies wear football gloves, baseball gloves, or golf gloves on their catching hands, to get a better grip on their trapper and to reduce the sting when they catch a puck. Here is a picture of Ed Belfour hoisting the Stanley Cup -- his glove is clearly visible."
Some quick follow-ups on other recent topics:
• Uni Watch had wondered why the guy holding the Dial-A-Down in this photo was wearing scholastic officials' socks (which have three stripes) instead of NFL officials' socks (which have two stripes). As several readers helpfully explained, the NFL hires and equips the main officiating crew, while the auxiliary officials, or "chain gang," are hired by the individual teams, usually from the ranks of local high school or college refs, who wear their usual togs. One reader chiming in on this was Ryan Sifferman (son of NFL field judge Tom Sifferman), who contributes a nice insider's tidbit: "Officials in the NFL are required to keep track of the time and downs on their own, in case the scoreboard goes out. In order to keep track of downs, most officials wear a rubber band or thick black string around their wrist, create a loop in it, and move it from the index finger to the pinky to reflect 1st to 4th down."
• As mentioned two weeks ago, the Steelers used the crest from the Pittsburgh city flag on the throwback unis they wore in 1994. But Uni Watch hadn't been able to find a photo of the original uniform on which the throwback was based. Fortunately, Bill Monti did.
• Nice observation from Bret A. Longman on the subject of football towels: "Boobie Miles, the tragic figure from 'Friday Night Lights' wore a towel monogrammed with 'Terminator X,' for the Public Enemy DJ. A picture of him with the towel appears in the book, although I was unable to find it on the Web. This excerpt from the book discusses the towel, though."
• And on the topic of college fencing (which often features crazy-quilt socks) vs. Olympic fencing (where the socks are generally plain), Adam Siegel checks in with the following: "As a former NCAA fencer myself, I can assure you that our entire uniforms go pretty much unregulated. Olympic fencing, on the other hand, is regulated by the International Fencing Association, which is basically a group of old stuffy people who force everyone to wear white. Most college fencing teams actually have standardized socks, but as far as I could ever tell, there's no penalty for going your own way."
Paul Lukas has never sent out his clothing to be tightened (but recently had a pair of slacks let out in the waist). Archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.