A few weeks ago, Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh was whistled for an illegal horse-collar tackle of Cowboys running back Marion Barber. Thing is, replays showed that Suh grabbed Barber not by the back of his collar, but by his dreadlocks -- a totally legal action. Of course, it wasn't the first time a guy had been tackled by his tuft. The fact that more players aren't snagged by their shocks is, well, shocking -- especially when you consider the sheer volume of hair in the league.
Pay close attention to your big screen on Sunday afternoons and you will notice linebackers, wide receivers, offensive linemen -- they've all gone long. Even Tom Brady, the erstwhile King of Clean-Cut, is steering clear of the shears. In today's NFL, hair is becoming a part of a football player's uniform, like pads and cleats.
Approximately 180 active pros boast locks that are at least shoulder-length. The NFC North, not surprisingly, boasts more long-haired players (29) than any other division.
Offensive players account for 37 percent of that group. Among those, the receiver position has the most longhairs per capita (12.3 percent), followed by running back (10.3 percent) and O-lineman (7.9 percent). The shaggiest position, by far, is defensive back (32 percent). And why wouldn't it be? Defensive backs are rarely tackled, and wide receivers aren't likely to pinch their locks, a fate some D-linemen and linebackers suffer at the hands of offensive linemen. Of course, Dolphins cornerback Al Harris offers another explanation: "They all grew up watching Al Harris," he says. A 14-year veteran who started growing his trademark dreadlocks as a rookie in 1997, Harris is, by most accounts, the league's father of frizz. "He's the first player I saw wearing dreads," says 23-year-old Lions defensive back Louis Delmas.
The tribe of NFL players rocking long locks crosses a wide spectrum, but its members are all similar in their borderline manic approach to their mane. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews regularly douses his head with water during games to keep away odor. "Despite what people may think," says Matthews, "my hair smells quite fantastic." Cards receiver Larry Fitzgerald has a full-on salon in his master bathroom -- complete with black leather pump chair, wash basin, TV, even a cone-of-silence hair dryer -- where he spends every Friday evening during the season. "There are two types of dudes in the NFL," says Fitzgerald, who started growing out his hair in 2003 to honor his late mother. "The dudes who care about their dreads and the dudes who don't."
Delmas is clearly the poster child for the Dudes Who Don't Care contingent. Instead of using a froufrou line like Paul Mitchell Tea Tree (a fave of Fitzgerald, Sidney Rice and T.J. Houshmandzadeh), Delmas relies on Luster's Pink Oil Moisturizer Hair Lotion, which you can get at Walgreen's for less than five bucks. And unlike the droves of dreadheads who protect their tresses with a skully -- the stretchy, black, league-issued cap that guys wear under a helmet -- Delmas wears nothing. "Only dudes with pretty-boy dreads wear caps," he says. Delmas also likes the way live game action turns his locks into a 'fro almost instantaneously. "It gives you an extra cushion." But not enough. Delmas suffered a concussion in a Week 15 game against the Bucs.
Whether guys sport lengthy locks for reasons of style, spirituality or practicality, there's one thing they can agree on: On Sundays, hair is fair game. That's been the case ever since 2003, when the NFL implemented the so-called Ricky Rule. After Dolphins running back Ricky Williams was dragged down twice by his dreads, the league announced that any hair that falls outside of the helmet is part of the uniform.
So when Delmas watched his teammate Suh yank Barber's bristles, a single thought ran through his head: That was a nice tackle. Fitzgerald believes his fellow ballcarriers have to recognize they're playing with fire: "Wear your hair long," he says. "But accept the consequences." That's fine by Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga, who's taken a Samson-like vow never to cut his coif. "We're coached to bring a guy down," he says. "We do that by any means necessary."
So should we expect to see Falcons wideout Roddy White or Pats running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis regularly tossed around by their locks this postseason? Hopefully not. "If a guy's close enough to grab your hair," says Houshmandzadeh, "then he's close enough to make a proper tackle."
In any case, it's only a matter of time before hair starts creeping back into helmets. In 2008, NFL owners considered but ultimately tabled a rule that would've outlawed hair that covered the name on a player's jersey. Two years later, a recession might already be underway. Bears receiver Devin Hester, a longtime longhair, swapped his dreads for a Mohawk earlier this year. "Styles ebb and flow," says USC professor Todd Boyd, a pop culture expert. "One day it's just over."
One way to predict the end of the trend? Says Fitzgerald, "If Peyton and Eli Manning start growing their hair out, you know it's time to cut yours off."
Eddie Matz is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.