By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

It can be tough keeping up with Chad Johnson's look, what with the "Ocho Cinco" nameplate, the ever-changing helmet and face mask styles (compare this to this to this), and of course the blonde Mohawk.

So Uni Watch can understand if you didn't notice Johnson's latest stylistic statement, especially since it was uncharacteristically subtle: During last Thursday's Bengals-Ravens game, Johnson apparently became the first player in NFL history to wear … wait for it … an orange chin strap.

"He was told not to wear it," says Larry Upson, the NFL's Director of Officiating Operations. "The rulebook specifies that chin straps have to be 'white only,' but he wore it anyway. I don't issue fines, but he probably will be fined."

Gee, there's a shocker. But Johnson isn't the only one who's been adding a splash of color to his chin strap lately. You know those little belt buckle sleeves that the Titans wear? On at least two occasions last month, Pacman Jones wore one of those sleeves over his chin strap's cup, which actually looks pretty cool.

Colored or white, chin straps have progressed a long way from the days when they were little more than rudimentary leather bands. In fact, today's NFL chin straps come in a dizzying array of variations (some depending on a player's preference, others matters of team policy). Is the cup hard or flexible? Does it connect to the helmet at two, four or six points? If it's a four-pointer, are all of the connections situated down low, or are the front two connections up high? If there's a high hookup, do the high connections snap on or are they permanently bolted on? And however many snaps there are, are they metal or plastic?

Then there are matters of personal chin strap style. This mostly involves having a loose, flapping strap or two, a trend for which we can thank (or blame) Deion Sanders. Prime Time began keeping his lower left strap unbuckled when he broke in with the Falcons (well, most of the time) and maintained that signature look during his stints with the 49ers, Cowboys, Redskins and Ravens, inspiring a host of copycats along the way. Of course, the problem with leaving your chin strap partially unfastened is that your helmet can come more than partially loose, but such is the price of high fashion.

Other players have their own chin strap eccentricities. Kickers often tear off their chin straps in disgust immediately after missing a kick – Uni Watch calls this the Tug of Shame – just so we'll know that they know they messed up. And Brett Favre, one of the last players to wear the old two-point style, habitually unsnaps his strap as soon as a play is over, not buckling it again until he steps under center for the next play. This is such an ingrained part of Favre's game that former teammate Ryan Longwell once quipped, "Sometimes Brett has his chin strap off before the pass is even completed to the receiver."

But however an NFL player wears his chin strap, it can't carry any logo except for the Riddell trademark (other brands are sometimes worn, but their logos are verboten, because Riddell is the league's official helmet licensee). In addition, two NFL teams put uniform numbers on their players' chin straps: the Chiefs (as seen here and here) and the Chargers (here, here and here).

Things are a bit more freewheeling in the NCAA, where colors are common (and often look really sharp) and logo creep is rampant. Sometimes the cup and straps themselves are colored, but the more common arrangement is a basic white assembly paired with a colored, logo-emblazoned pad that fits over the cup (which is essentially what Pacman Jones is mimicking with the belt buckle sleeve). Vince Young used to wear his pad inside-out, creating a mirror-image logo, and lately Ray Rice has been wearing his pad backwards, resulting in an upside-down logo. Uni Watch likes to think that these symbolize some sort of protest against the swooshification of college sports, although they're probably just "Look at me!" stunts.

Chin straps can get even more unusual (dangerous, too), once you move down to the high school ranks. In Madison Heights, Mich., the Madison High Eagles make Chad Johnson look like an amateur. At last month's Division 5 state finals, the team wore extra-long straps adorned with colored-tape stripes. Clever stylistic maneuver? Scandalous affront to the game? Loving homage to the Asian long-horned beetle? Uni Watch will let you, dear reader, be the judge.

Speaking of Chad Johnson, where'd he get that orange chin strap anyway? "Not from me," says Rob Recker, the Bengals' equipment manager. "He just put it on and rolled with it." And did you try to get him to wear a white one? "I'll put it to you like this," says Recker. "He's aware that he's supposed to be wearing a white chin strap. End of meeting."

This no-nonsense approach serves Recker well when dealing with today's athletes. "I do the best I can, but we all have to realize these guys are grown men," he says. "If I tell a guy to do something or else he'll be fined, and he says, 'Oh well,' I'm not gonna sit there and argue with him. If you've got five grand you wanna give to NFL Charities, go for it, man. It's no skin off my knee."

Regulations notwithstanding, Johnson's orange strap didn't look so bad. Does Recker wish the whole team could go with that look?

"If it's orange, they want black, and if it's black, they want white," he says. "Everyone wants to be different. I'll be honest with you: I prefer simplicity."

Boy is he ever with the wrong team.

(Permanently bolted-on thanks to Uni Watch intern Vince Grzegorek and reader AJ Connelly for their invaluable research assistance.)

Ice Follies
As you may have heard, the NHL is planning to unveil its sleek new uniform template at this season's All-Star Game, which takes place in January. A lot of fans have been nervous about this, especially after these not-so-hot jersey templates were leaked back in October (more details here). But now that nervousness is progressing to full-blown panic, as the Maple Leafs have announced plans to change their logo, leading to fears that the league may be unrecognizable next year.

Those fears won't be calmed by a communiqué Uni Watch recently received from an inside source, who reports the following:

I recently viewed a promo DVD of the new NHL uniforms. From what I can tell, traditionalist fans are going to be pissed. The tucked-in jersey style looks weird, especially because the new pants from Reebok ride up real high on the sides of the back to help protect players' kidneys – so high, in fact, that it creates somewhat of a V shape on the back, and almost obscures the bottom of the uniform number.

The coolest thing about the new unis was actually the new technology in the socks. They've kept the horizontal stripes, instead of Nike's shin guard look. What's interesting is that they've added reusable compression into the sock itself. No more need for poly tape around the socks to ensure a tight fit.

It should come as no surprise that Uni Watch takes great comfort in the news about the sock stripes. But tucked-in jerseys – ugh. Uni Watch will struggle to reserve judgment until seeing the actual designs, but this doesn't bode well.

Seeing Red
Remember this guy? Probably not, since he hasn't appeared in a Reds uniform since 1956. But he'll be back next season, as a sleeve patch on Cincy's new uniforms, which were unveiled last Friday evening. Full details, including an exhaustive assessment of the new design's pros and cons, are here.

Other recent developments: The Blue Jays have a new alternate cap (more info here), NFL officials have finally broken out the long-promised cold-weather black slacks (more info, and the obligatory Foot Locker joke, here and here), and Marko Jaric needs to hire a valet (more info here).

Another Black Eye
Last column's look at eye black prompted lots of good responses, including many from readers who chastised Uni Watch for not mentioning former Vikings sackmaster John Randle, who didn't skimp on the black stuff. As reader Jim Pericotti put it, "Randle is to eye black what Courtney Love is to lipstick." Several readers also mentioned Tampa Bay's Chris Hovan, who used to go a bit overboard back at Boston College. (Nowadays, of course, Hovan is uni-notable primarily for his nonexistent sleeves, which don't leave enough to the imagination.)

Other eye black commentary:

• From Joel Smith: "When it comes to wearing just one eye black sticker, Andruw Jones seems to have learned something from Michael Clayton [additional view here]."

• From Tim Whitehead: "Lacrosse star Mikey Powell might interest you. He always wears his as two big triangles under his eyes. This is a trend that has spread in lacrosse." Travis Holland provides further evidence here.

• From Bob Krag: "I believe Rustu Recber, the Turkish national goalkeeper, was the first soccer player to sport eye black, during the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea. It looked tough [and cute], but nobody saw fit to follow suit."

• And from Luke Parks: "In 2004, before Reggie Bush wrote things on his eye black, I wore 'GATA' on my eye strips. 'GATA' was made up by former Georgia Southern coach Erk Russell – it stands for, 'Get After Their *sses.' "

Holiday Shopping
Looking for that perfect stocking stuffer, or maybe just a treat for yourself? Uni Watch humbly suggests that you consider an item or two from the extensive line of Uni Watch merchandise, which now includes caps, travel mugs, beer steins, tote bags and literally hundreds of T-shirt styles (even one for your baby nephew). Check out the full product line here.

Paul Lukas has a classic Riddell two-point chin strap on his 1960s Packers reproduction helmet. 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.