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"C'mere," motioned the Pop Warner coach, a Zippo lighter in one hand and a cork in the other. He ignited the former, held it to the latter, and then rubbed the resulting blackened char on his 11-year-old player's cheekbones.
Such was a young Uni Watch's first experience with eye black. The burnt-cork method was pretty common back in those days, but only the most hardcore of old-school players would go that route today. Nowadays you've got a choice between grease sticks and adhesive stickers, both of which supposedly provide anti-glare protection.
But let's be honest: glare, shmare. The real reason everyone loves to wear eye black is that it looks totally cool, like modern war paint (although the stickers don't look nearly as primal as the grease). Or at least that's how it was for about six decades. But over the past year or two, eye black hasn't been so black anymore.
It's not clear who was the first player to personalize his eye black stickers. But the trend clearly hit the big time with Reggie Bush, who famously adorned his cheekbones with "619" (his home area code) and "S-E" (for his hometown's southeastern location in San Diego county) last year. After that, the floodgates opened.
A few other players continue to do the area code shout-out, including Nebraska's Marlon Lucky, Tennessee's LaMarcus Coker, Toledo's Walter Atkins and Steven Morrison, and Clemson's James Davis. And occasionally you'll see a player with uni-numbered eye black, like Florida State's Caz Plurowski.
But most college gridders now opt to wear their school logo, including players on Texas, Texas A&M, Ohio State, UCLA, BYU, Wake Forest, UConn, Mizzou, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Oregon, among many, many others. Some schools have multiple designs, like LSU, whose players can variously be seen sporting "LSU" or a tiger's head. And a few teams have special eye black insignia, like Louisville, where players wear "The 'Ville."
Then there are the guys who go beyond the standard logo or numerical approach. For example:
• Ray Rice: The Rutgers running back wears a long black strip across his face, inscribed with "R.I.P. 914 S.U.P.E." The first part is a memorial to his late cousin, the number is his home area code, and "S.U.P.E." is for "Spiritual uplifting people everywhere" (another shout-out to his cousin -- more details here.)
• Rey Maualuga: Another memorial tribute here, as Maualuga wears "RIP DAD" in honor of his father, Tony, who died of cancer last year.
• DeSean Jackson: The Cal wideout wears "THA1" (here's a closer look), which means either he's still using his high school nickname (he was known as "Tha Chosen One" back at Long Beach Poly) or else he's a big fan of Neo.
• C.J. Spiller: Does God wear eye black? Maybe, but Spiller isn't taking any chances. He's got "VCC" on his stickers, which stands for Victory Christian Center, his hometown church.
• Marcus Vick: When people mention Vick's "erratic behavior," you might mistakenly think they're referring to his assorted on- and off-field shenanigans. But Uni Watch knows they're actually talking about the wide range of eye black styles he wore during his time at Virginia Tech: blank, logo-emblazoned, and uni-numbered (sometimes handwritten, sometimes custom-printed).
The earliest known instance of a player wearing eye black is Redskins fullback Andy Farkas, who apparently came up with the idea on his own in 1942. The practice quickly spread, but it wasn't until 60 years later that anyone thought to ask a vaguely relevant question: Does the stuff actually work? According to this study, the grease sticks help, but the stickers don't. And this study concludes that eye black is less helpful for blue-eyed athletes and males. Apparently no study has attempted to gauge the merits of a sticker whose black surface is covered in logos, although Uni Watch suspects the effect is less than salutary.
But that's of no concern to this company, which will print pretty much anything on a set of eye black stickers -- school logos, corporate logos, national flags, whatever. Now everyone can have a black eye, so to speak.
Of course, eye black is also popular on the baseball diamond (except for pitchers, although there's been at least one famous exception to that rule). The most interesting case is probably Andruw Jones. For years he was eye black-free, but at some point last summer he began wearing one black sticker, under his left eye. Uni Watch initially thought his other sticker had fallen off, but the solo sticker turned out to be Jones' signature style, as seen here, here, and here. Uni Watch knows of at least one previous example of a single-stickered ballplayer, but that one makes more sense, since the player in question only had one eye to begin with.
MLB restrictions prohibit players from wearing unapproved logos or messages, so baseball players stick to basic black. The NFL has similar regulations, but players have been flouting that rule on a number of fronts this season (DeAngelo Williams has been using a Memphis-branded mouthguard, and Terry Glenn snuck an Ohio State merit decal onto his helmet a few weeks back), so it was inevitable that someone would take the field wearing a logo-ized eye sticker. That someone is Giants cornerback R.W. McQuarters, who on at least two occasions this season has worn a suspicious-looking appliqué under his right eye. Upon closer inspection, it turns out to be -- get this -- a SpongeBob Band-Aid!
So now we've come full circle: Instead of cartoon characters wearing eye black, we have McQuarters wearing a cartoon character as eye black. War paint it ain't.
The NBA has plenty of new uniform restrictions this season, but so far the league has no guidelines against headbands. Bulls coach Scott Skiles does, though, and on Saturday he went so far as to bench Ben Wallace for wearing a headband.
What's the rationale behind Skiles' headband prohibition? According to this article, he won't say, which reinforces Uni Watch's belief that it's a stupid rule. Headbands may be dubious fashion statements, but it's hard to argue with something that keeps sweat out of your eyes.
Good thing Paul Pierce doesn't play for Skiles -- he's already worn four different headband designs this season. More details on that, and other headband-related musings, here.
Uni Watch's warmest congratulations to Bill Belichick, the runaway winner in last column's reader poll to determine which NFL coach is most in need of a suit. The Uni Watch tailor will be arriving soon, Coach. And this just in: The suit winner also gets a free disinfectant bath, preferred cot placement at the shelter, and some government-issued cheese.
Meanwhile, Mike Nolan and Jack Del Rio debuted their new Reebok-made suits during Week 11, and the world appears to have kept on spinning just fine. The good news about the suits: no logo creep. The bad news: Nolan appeared to have a bit of trouble with his jacket's sleeve lining, which was peeking out from his left cuff by game's end. Random mishap, or an indication that Reebok still has a lot to learn about how to make a suit? Uni Watch will let you, dear reader, be the judge.
College Hoops, Continued
OK, one last round of college basketball uniform changes, with thanks to everyone who's contributed info and photos:
Dartmouth (old, new); Drake (old home, new home; old road, new road); Drexel (normal world, NikeWorld); Furman (old, new); Georgetown (a 100th-anniversary logo, which is being worn as a shoulder patch); Georgia (a jersey patch, in memory of former teammate Kevin Brophy); UMass (new black alternates); Oral Roberts (normal world, NikeWorld); Penn (old, new); Pepperdine (old home, new home; old road, new road); Princeton (old, new); Quinnipiac (old home, new home; old road, new road); Temple (old, new); UTEP (old home, new home; old road, new road); Virginia Tech (old, new, and dig the vertically arched nameplates!); Washington State (old home, new home; old road, new road); Winthrop (old, new); and Wisconsin-Green Bay (new black alternates).
Paul Lukas hasn't ordered up a set of Uni Watch eye black stickers -- yet. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.