By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

The first thing you need to know about Chris Willis is that he makes decals, not stickers.

"A sticker, to me, is something that comes on a roll, it's thin, you can make a billion of 'em," he says. "A decal is something that's much more involved and -- well, I'm not gonna say it's art, but we take a lot of pride in it."

If you hadn't realized there was a difference between decals and stickers, well, neither had Uni Watch. And that brings us to the second thing you need to know about Willis: His Houston-based company, Athletic Decals Incorporated, supplies the decals for all the graphics you see on most NFL helmets. That includes the team logos on the sides of the helmet, the league and American flag icons on the back, commemorative and memorial decals, even the stripes. Basically, if you can see it on an NFL player's hat, chances are Willis and his company manufactured it. He also works with dozens of top college programs, where his product includes the award decals that many NCAA teams use.

Willis' decals are seen by millions of fans every weekend, and are arguably the key elements in the NFL's visual branding program. But like so many people along the uniform supply chain, he plays a behind-the-scenes role that few fans are aware of, and that most have never even thought about. Fortunately, he's a self-effacing guy who's content with his relative anonymity, as Uni Watch recently discovered during a lengthy phone interview with him. Wanna get the full scoop on the decal scene? Check out the transcript of our chat, here.

Meanwhile, speaking of helmet graphics; Some of you are probably wondering about Uni Watch's long-promised rundown of college football merit decals. Hang in there -- it's coming soon. Just don't call them merit stickers.

Logo Creep(y)
Regular readers are well aware that two of Uni Watch's favorite subjects -- OK, obsessions -- are a fondness for baseball hosiery and an antipathy toward corporate sportwear logos. So imagine Uni Watch's dismay upon seeing Rawlings-branded socks being worn in the ALCS by Kelvim Escobar, Orlando Cabrera, Paul Byrd, and Joe Crede!

Are these new additions to the MLB sock drawer? Apparently not -- Byrd wore the logo-emblazoned hose on at least two previous occasions this season. Most likely all the Angels wear them, and maybe all the Sox too, but it's just a matter of whether they cuff their pants high enough to expose the accursed logo.

Think Uni Watch is making a big fuss over nothing? Consider this: With assorted non-team insignia already appearing on jerseys, pants, undersleeves, caps, helmets, spikes, sweatbands, batting gloves, fielding gloves, and catchers' equipment, socks are the baseball uniform's last remaining logo-free zone. Or at least that's the case on the MLB level -- check out the totally bogus socks that were on display in last year's Olympics. Let's hope Crede (whose sock logo isn't even woven in a Sox team color!) pays closer attention to his pant/sock intersection in the World Series. If he doesn't, you can bet we'll start seeing a full-scale pestilence of corporate-branded hosiery in the big leagues sooner than you can say, "Maybe the pajama look isn't so bad after all." Don't stand for it -- join Uni Watch in insisting on logo-free hose! In the immortal words of Edmund Burke (a big uniform enthusiast, in case you didn't know), "All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."

The Dark (Under)Side
Meanwhile, a small mystery is brewing over in the National League, where the Astros, like most MLB teams, wear gray undervisors. But over the past month or so, 'Stros pitcher Brandon Backe's undervisor has been black, a color normally worn only by the Angels (for details on why, look here), Rangers (although their undervisors are sometimes gray), and Mariners (ditto).

So what's the deal with Backe's cap? The folks at New Era claim to know nothing about it, and Uni Watch's inquiries to the Astros were met with the cryptic reply that it's a "team secret." Got inside info on this one and wanna go down as the uni equivalent of Deep Throat? Skip the whole meet-in-the-garage routine and just cut to the chase.

Uni News Ticker
It isn't exactly news to point out that more and more NFL players are shortening their pant legs, but check out Dre Bly -- he's practically wearing biker shorts! … The increasingly ubiquitous Red Cross logo has now moved to baseball gloves. … When the NHL season opened on Oct. 5, neither the Rangers nor Devils had named a captain. So instead of having one player wearing a "C" and two alternates wearing the "A," both teams had three "A"-adorned players. … Very odd situation unfolding in Milwaukee, where the Brewers have signed on as a sponsor for the minor league Milwaukee Admirals hockey team. Since minor league hockey clubs wear ad patches, the net result is that we've got a hockey team wearing a baseaball team's logo, apparently the first time this kind of cross-sport branding has taken place. … Everyone knows the MLB logo appears on jerseys, caps, undershirt collars, catchers' gear, umpiring attire, the bases, the ball, and probably a few other places. But until seeing this photo of Andy Pettitte, Uni Watch had never seen the logo on a player's shoes. … As about a jillion readers helpfully pointed out, Joel Dreessen of the Jets wasn't actually wearing a white waistband in this photo -- he just had his green waistband flipped down, thereby exposing its underside, a fairly common practice. … Miami will wear 1967 throwback uniforms -- the first throwback design in the school's history -- on Oct. 29. … The Celtics reportedly have a set of black-accented alternate unis on the drawing board for the upcoming season. … Syracuse went without player nameplates against UConn on Oct. 7, reportedly because the dye in the jerseys had bled during laundering and the replacement jerseys from Nike didn't have names (although reader Colin Kelly sees other forces at work: "Based on the way the Orange have been playing lately, I'd want some anonymity too"). … Tim Rogers suggests a new NHL drinking game: "Every time you see a Reebok logo [on the boards along the red line and blue lines, say] you have to shotgun a Molson. They're all over the place!" … The off-ice hockey officials -- the penalty timekeeper, the goal judge, and so on -- rarely get any uni-related attention, but check out this report from the front by Paul Arena: "While attending the Devils/'Canes game the other night, I noticed that the off-ice officials have been given new blazers with the new silver-and-black, reverse-sloped NHL logo, but they were still wearing the old orange logo neckties and pullover sweaters. Looked pretty bad." It's hard to imagine an NHL logo necktie looking good under any circumstances, but Arena's point is well taken. … The Edmonton Oilers retired Paul Coffey's No. 7 on Oct. 17. And in an interesting move, everyone on the team wore a "7" patch on their right shoulder for that night's game. … Logo Creep Alert: It's becoming increasingly obvious that Nike won't be satisfied until the entire nation is one big swoosh. For the latest evidence, check out Oregon's thigh pads and the Michigan hockey team's knees. … More corporate sportswear stupidity: An Arkansas State basketball player has essentially been suspended from the team because he refuses to wear adidas sneakers, which the team is contractually obligated to wear. … The Sacramento Kings have unveiled their new alternate jerseys, and boy are they a disaster. More details on this and other basketball developments in Uni Watch's upcoming NBA season-preview column, slated for Nov. 1. … Speaking of the NBA, Andrei Kirilenko of the Jazz has been wearing a mask in preseason games. … Stop the presses, someone snuck an unauthorized piece of equipment into an NFL game! That news comes courtesy of photojournalist Carleton Hall, who was working the Browns/Ravens game on Oct. 16 when he alertly snapped this photo of Ravens safety Ed Reed wearing a University of Miami armband. … In yet another NFL uni modification, Jon Stiffler notes that Brett Favre had a small handwritten squiggle on the back of his helmet, just to the left of the stripe, on Oct. 9. Initials? A number? Packers spokesperson Maria Heim says, "The equipment manager said he didn't know anything about it." Big surprise. So how about asking Brett? "We're working on it." Sigh. When will these team publicists start treating uni matters seriously? … The Chargers wore their early-'60s powder blue throwbacks on Oct. 10, resulting in the annual flood of "Why don't they wear it full-time?" e-mails. It's a great look, natch (and management gets bonus points for using vintage logos on the field and end zone), but Uni Watch would love to see them honor the late-'60s version of the design, which had yellow pants. … The Patriots misspelled Amos Zereoue's name on his jersey as "Zereuoe" on Sunday.

Flag Day Revisited
Nice timing: On Oct. 14, just a few days after Uni Watch's recent rundown of players and teams who wear state and foreign flags, the Puerto Rican flag appeared as part of a "PR 05" jersey patch worn by the Grizzlies and Heat for a preseason game in San Juan.

Meanwhile, as Uni Watch had suspected, our original flag breakdown was missing several key examples, most notably Keith Foulke, who's been wearing the Texas state flag on the thumb of his glove for years without Uni Watch having noticed -- first with the White Sox, then with the A's, and now with the Red Sox.

Other additions to the roster of flag-clad players and teams include Kelvim Escobar (who wears the Venezuelan flag on his glove), Carlos Zambrano (Venezuelan flag, glove), John Lackey (Texas flag, glove), Odalis Perez (Dominican flag, glove), Eric Gagne (Quebec flag, glove), the Phoenix Coyotes (Arizona flag, shoulder patch), the Houston Texans (Texas flag, helmet), the LSU football team (Louisiana flag, back of helmet), the Maryland basketball team (Maryland flag, shorts), and the late-'90s Maryland football team (Maryland flag, helmet). A few people also noted that the three stars of the Tennessee flag are echoed on the Titans' helmet, although Uni Watch thinks this is stretching things a bit.

The most interesting revelation, it turns out, is that the Chicago city flag briefly appeared on the back of the White Sox helmets in 1991, and also serves as the basis for the Chicago Fire's alternate jersey. And the least surprising revelation: This guy always finds a way to wear the American flag, even at the ballpark.

Thanks to all who contributed info, especially Rick Roth, Dan Roche, Bill Wallace, Jaret Glazer, Greg Watson, Jimmie Nixon, Sam Mitchell, Matt Pruitt, Ross Yoshida and Todd Radom.

Beltway Politics
Uni Watch's recent examination of Philadelphia Eagles players who leave their belts unbuckled also brought lots of responses, most of them pointing out other unbuckled players, past and present. The roster includes Charles Woodson (whose beltless habit appears to date back to his college days), Julius Jones (ditto), Larry Allen, Dwight Smith, Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly, Emmitt Smith, Madieu Williams, Deion Sanders, and Notre Dame's Jeff Samardzija.

In other belt news, what the heck was Jerry Porter doing wearing a zebra-striped belt a few weeks ago? And it turns out that those little belt-buckle team logos aren't limited to the Jets and Broncos -- select members of the Bucs, Niners, and Falcons wear them too. And who wears the lamest belt buckle of all? Michelle Wie.

Finally, although Uni Watch has been unable to find photographic evidence, anyone who saw the Browns/Bears game on Oct. 9 can confirm that Cleveland wide receiver Antonio Bryant had some major belt trouble in the fourth quarter, when his pants inadvertently came down as he caught a touchdown pass. This led to a headline for the ages in the following day's Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Browns receiver's two TD catches make Bears, pants fall."

Thanks to all contributors, especially David Arnott, Jesse Stilphen, John Heffernan, Bradd Stoker, Chris Tilton, Tom Gruber, Jason Hall, Andrew Mushett, Matt Waters, Brian Temke, Terry Holderbaum and Cory Taylor.

Uni Watch's call for players who wear different unis than their teammates (aside from soccer goalies, field hockey goalies, and volleyball liberos, who we've already discussed) led to this near-heroic dispatch from reader Slava Malamud:

"Goalies wear different color shirts in the following sports: bandy (sort of like ice hockey on soccer-sized rinks, very popular in Sweden and Russia), team handball (really cool sport that for some reason is unpopular in the States), motoball (basically soccer on motorcycles, and no, I don't know why anyone would want to be a goalie for that), hurling (an Irish national sport), Gaelic football (another Irish invention), rink hockey (a popular European game on roller skates), and water polo (where the rest of the players wear white and blue caps, but both goalies wear red ones)."

And then there was this from Mike Jacobs: "In rowing, the coxswain (the little one) needs to be in the same uniform as everyone else at the international level and at the NCAA Women's Championships. But at other levels, the coxswain can dress like the rest of the crew, or wear different-colored shorts, or wear a different shirt."

If we've overlooked any other sports with non-uniform uniforms, you know what to do.

Spat's All, Folks
Uni Watch's primer on football spats also brought some great feedback, much of it centering on players who've had their footwear logos applied onto the spat tape:

• From reader Adam Wagner: "Back in the late 1980s, when Walter Payton was wearing Roos footwear, I vaguely remember that he used to have his equipment manager stencil the Roos kangaroo logo over his taped spats. It looked as classy as everything else Sweetness was affiliated with, except that Bears music video."

• From Doug Brei: "In Super Bowl XIV (I think), Rams running back Wendell Tyler (perhaps) had two different shoe company logos spray-painted onto his two taped shoes! I'm not sure of all the details, but I'm almost positive it was an L.A. Ram, I'm pretty sure it was in the Super Bowl, and I'm positive that the guy had a different logo on each foot (one Roos and one Pony?)." Uni Watch hasn't been able to find photographic confirmation of this, but Brei's track record of past contributions is pretty solid, so this one definitely merits further investigation.

• Turns out the Auburn football team isn't the only one that's had a spat with Nike over the spatted style. Alex Putelo notes that Buccaneers safety Dwight Smith chose to lose his Nike shoe contract rather than go spat-less.

• Want to achieve the spatted look without fussing with all that messy tape? Curt Wilson, David Jones and Bob Austin report that the sporting goods retail landscape includes this, this, and this.

• And then there's this, from sneaker maven J. Todd Krevanchi: "Spats or spat-looking shoes have made their way into other sports. Brand Jordan created the Jumpman Vindicate when Vin Baker was on the Brand Jordan team. This shoe never really caught on, but Derek Jeter wore a cleated version of it during the 1999 MLB All-Star Game at Fenway Park, creating the spatted look for baseball [Uni Watch remembers this quite clearly but has been unable to turn up a photo]. The Air Jordan 16 actually came with real spats (or gaiters, as they were called on the box). Of course, of all the Air Jordans, the ones that really look like spats are the Air Jordan 11, which are regarded by collectors as the best Jordans of all time."

Sock It to Me
Uni Watch's call for teams who've worn vertically striped socks, la the early-'60s Denver Broncos and the late-'60s Tulane basketball team, has brought only one full-fledged example: the German soccer team 1860 Munich of the mid-to-late 1990s. Somewhat less satisfying is the 2003-04 Arsenal team (whose stripes are kinda half-hearted, no?) and the several MLS teams that wear vertical adidas stripes (which doesn't really count, since it's basically just glorified logo creep). A dejected Uni Watch, disappointed by the paucity of north/south sock striping, nonetheless sends big thanks to readers Steve Murphy, Jeffrey Mahardi and Chris Mobley.

Speaking of soccer, thanks also to the many readers who explained that the candy-striped hose Randy Moss wore at Marshall were not rugby socks, as Uni Watch had suggested, but Nike soccer socks. Still, the rugby mention paid off, because several readers had all sorts of cool info about rugby legwear:

• From Jon Mendelson: "I played rugby in college, and the basics of rugby hosiery are as follows: They should be about knee length, and while some are kept up by the elasticity of the sock itself, my team's socks were fastened at the top by a shoelace stitched into the sock, underneath a fold of the fabric."

• From Dominic Litten: "Striped socks (or 'hooped,' in rugby nomenclature) have been around since at least the 1924 Olympics. The United States wore hooped socks during the Paris games, including during their gold medal match against France, a 17-3 win for the Yanks."

• From Tucker McComiskey: "I recently moved to Australia from the States and have fallen in love with rugby. From what I can understand, the striped rugby sock originated in Australia. Apparently, when the first test match was played between Australia and the British Isles around 1900, there were no national colors for Australia yet. Since two of the matches were to be played in New South Wales and the other in Queensland, the team wore the colors of the host state -- blue for NSW, maroon for QLD. Later on, the national team began sharing these two colors in a striped blue-and-maroon pattern, both on the jersey and socks. When the national team's colors changed to green and gold (as now seen on the Australian Olympics team), they stuck with the striped look of the socks. As more and more teams began to form in Australia, teams stuck with the striped sock look, as a tribute to the first teams to play for Australa."

• And from Joe Bonneau: "Unlike most sports, rugby teams have only one uniform, which they wear in all matches. In most cases it will look different enough from the opposition, but sometimes two similar-looking teams play head-to-head and it's difficult to tell the two sides apart. I played a match in high school where both teams had nearly identical red-and-black barred uniforms and black shorts. The only difference was that they had white collars and we had red. And though both teams wore red-and-black striped socks, I think their stripes were thinner."

And hey, take a closer look at that last photo -- looks like one of the players is wearing garters, or Velcro straps to keep the socks up, or something like that. Could there possibly be more to learn about the world of rugby hosiery? Stay tuned.

Paul Lukas got in trouble for putting a 49ers sticker on the dining room table when he was 8 years old. 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.

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