PULLMAN – Last Sunday, the Washington State football players worked out, and had a team meeting. They took a break for dinner, but when the Cougars went down to the bottom level of Cougar Football Complex, they found a surprise waiting in their locker.
The WSU equipment managers used the dinner break to swap out the team’s typical practice helmets with the dark anthracite-colored version the team wore for the first time against Oregon on Saturday.
“There was a lot of ooh-ing and ahh-ing,” said Milton Neal, the director of equipment operations. “They were pumped.”
Helmets are a player’s most important piece of equipment, and without question the most valuable. While an athlete can expect to wear through multiple pairs of pads over the course of his career, the a helmet is expected to last all five years.
The Cougars have had many helmets over the years. Crimson helmets, white helmets, helmets with logos and helmets with script. Some of the helmets have had numbers on the side, and, twice, there have been roses.
But the Cougars have never gone with anthracite helmets. Until Saturday.
“The idea came toward the end of last season. Josh (Pietz) and I started talking and what brought it on was our actual light gray helmet,” Neal said. “We wore it one time last year after we lost to Portland State in them, we started thinking it was a shame to have that helmet here and we never wear it.”
At the American Football Coaches Associations meetings in San Antonio last January, Neal and Pietz met with the helmet makers from Riddell and the helmet painters at Hydro Graphics Inc. (HGI) to discuss plans for a new look.
The helmet creators worked up some samples to show athletic director Bill Moos, including an anthracite option, “just to see what it would look like.” But the primary objective was to stay true to the official gray color assigned to WSU by Nike.
HGI created a few options in each color, including a matte option that is en vogue for a lot of teams trying to juice up their helmet style. But the option everybody liked best is the one the Cougars debuted against the Ducks.
“As soon as they came in, we knew which one we were going to go with,” Neal said.
The Cougars put more emphasis than many teams on having their helmets look clean and new all season long. That’s why they had to practice in them on Sunday. Allow Neal to explain.
“For all of our helmets, we have chosen to have a permanent high-hookup, instead of a snap,” he said. “The upper facemask strap slides through these little glides, and we tighten them down to where it fits their chin. That’s what we do on Sunday.”
By using the hookup, rather than the strap, the Cougars avoid the metal snaps at the end of the straps that are actually the cause of most scuffing and scratches on helmets. Furthermore, the Cougars sand down the sharp points on the facemask itself so that players will not scratch up their teammates helmets during games.
Helmets are sent to the manufacturers every offseason for testing and to weed out any that might not meet rigorous safety standards. Because a player’s most important tool can’t just look good. It has to work, too.