LSU, Alabama loyalty: When NFL players can't let go of their college gear

CINCINNATI -- Take a look around the Bengals' locker room and almost all of the lockers look fairly identical. Most of them have one set of orange and black pads above them. The only two that stand out happen to be right next to each other.

AJ McCarron sports red and black pads; Brandon LaFell sports purple and gold. Both are the same pads they have worn since they played at Alabama and LSU, respectively.

With their two alma maters set to square off on Saturday, just a mention of the pads brings up some friendly banter between the two. McCarron waves off the notion that Alabama, a heavy favorite, could be in trouble and says they'll beat LSU easily. LaFell cautions that it'll be closer than he thinks.

The two players have grown close over the past year, and LaFell was disappointed for McCarron when an attempted trade to the Browns fell through at the last minute. Had McCarron made it to Cleveland, those red pads probably would've come with him.

LaFell, 30, and McCarron, 27, attended rival schools, but they didn't play at the same time.

Their colleges are clearly still close to their hearts. During the bye week, LaFell returned to Baton Rouge to celebrate LSU's 2007 national championship team, and stayed on the sideline the entire game.

The pads he wears today are the same pads he wore when he caught a touchdown pass in the BCS National Championship Game to beat Ohio State that year. He has kept them through stints with the Panthers, Patriots and Bengals. He refuses to get rid of them.

"I've been wearing those pads since 2006," LaFell said. "I had to get them refurbished when I got to New England because they were falling apart. Those are my babies. I've been wearing those since day one and I'm not changing."

For McCarron, it's somewhat of a personal preference for comfort. McCarron tried to switch to new pads in the 2015 offseason and found he didn't like them. So he went back to the pads that saw him through three BCS national championships in college.

That same season, McCarron started three regular-season games for the Bengals in place of an injured Andy Dalton, helping the team get to the playoffs again.

"I wouldn't change." he said. "They just fit well, and it takes a long time to break those pads in. I'm just used to them."

LaFell is more sentimental with his reasoning. He has been wearing the pads since he was 19 and feels as if they have some luck left in them.

"They're lucky. They just fit me and they're molded to my body. I'm comfortable with those pads," He said. "I had a bad shoulder in college and they put a special pad in there for me. So I guess my shoulder has been fine since I had that special pad put in there and I'm going to stick with it. That's my comfort zone."

Considering athletes are known to stick to their routines, it's almost surprising to see that most players have ditched their old pads. Around the NFL, it's somewhat rare to see a player wearing old pads. Bills guard Richie Incognito still sports his old Dolphins pads. Like LaFell, Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette has stuck with his comfortable college pads, telling ESPN that others just don't feel right. Former NFL offensive lineman Kevin Mawae also sported his LSU pads for years.

LSU's equipment manager Greg Stringfellow said he doesn't get too many calls about old pads, but every once in a while a former player will call and see if he can dig them up for them. Once the player is out of college, Stringfellow has no use for the pads and is happy to send them along if he can.

"Once they're done here, I can't put them on another player because they're kind of molded to that player's body," Stringfellow said. "It's not something I could reuse."

But around the league as a whole, it seems most players move on when they move to another team. The how and why depends on the player's preference and sometimes the team itself. Stringfellow said some equipment managers would prefer their players to use the team-issued pads, and others don't care.

LaFell says he thinks moving on with the new pads has to do with getting a fresh start.

"Most people, they're so ready to get out of college and get away, they just leave everything [behind]," LaFell said. "They're ready to get out and get to something new. Me, I was fortunate when I left that my equipment manager, Greg Stringfellow, allowed me to take my helmets, jerseys, and my shoulder pads. So I was one of the lucky ones, fortunate ones to get them."

And what would LaFell do if the pads actually fell apart? Stringfellow said the pads can usually be fixed, but if they get a bad enough crack, the player would have to move on. LaFell isn't thinking about that possibility.

"I'm going to send them back to LSU and they're going to do some things to them, and they'll be right back up to go the next week," he said.