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A Closer Look at College Football Merit Decal History

There was an item buried in Friday’s Ticker that you may have passed over without a second thought. It read, “Did merit stickers start at Rutgers, not Ohio State? This article says yes.” I want to take a closer look at that item today.

First, some quick background. The party line for many years was that merit decals began at Ohio State in 1968. I said as much in this ESPN column in 2005. Another writer (whose surname, by odd coincidence, was Lukacs) said the same thing in 2008.

In retrospect, the claim that Ohio State came up with the idea for merit decals appears to have originated with Ohio State itself. The school’s website used to have a page devoted to how coach Woody Hayes and trainer Ernie Biggs came up with the idea (although I can’t find that page now — maybe it’s no longer active), and I foolishly took their word for it in my 2005 piece. So did lots of other journalists and fans.

That claim has now been debunked many times over. For starters, Ohio State wasn’t the only school giving out merit decals in 1968. According to helmet researcher Curtis Worrell of Helmet Hut (who knows more about this stuff than anyone I’ve ever encountered), Iowa rewarded big plays in ’68 by affixing letters that spelled out “Hawk” the back of the helmet. If a player earned more than four decals, they started over from the beginning of the word (photos from Helmet Hut):

In addition, Iowa’s 1968 helmets were blank on the sides, but players could “earn” a black hawk right-side logo by virtue of excellent performance. Here’s a shot showing some players with blank helmets and some with the black hawk:

Further explanation comes from this Helmet Hut page:

The Iowa helmet … was augmented, for 1968 only, with award designations for outstanding play that consisted of one-inch Green Bay gold H-A-W-K letters that were trimmed in black, and black “Flying Hawk” award decals. The “HAWK” award letters were placed at the rear of the helmet and the “Flying Hawk” award was placed only on the right side of the helmet for those earning them.

So Ohio State wasn’t a lone pioneer in 1968. More importantly, though, there were also several schools that awarded merit decals before 1968. Here are the ones I’m currently aware of, although there may be more:

• 1966: According to Worrell, the Helmet Hut guy, Wisconsin players were rewarded for big plays by having letters added to the backs of their helmets, eventually spelling out “Badgers.” Here are some photos Worrell provided to me:

• 1965: Miami of Ohio wore tomahawk decals. Ironically, Miami’s coach at the time was Bo Schembechler, who would later coach at Michigan and become Woody Hayes’s arch-rival. Here’s a photo:

There’s additional info on the Miami decals here. And according to this Wikipedia page, ESPN eventually gave credit to Miami as well. Unfortunately, the 2014 ESPN video clip cited as a reference is no longer functional.

• Early 1960s: Illinois awarded star decals for big plays. Here’s a shot that shows Dick Butkus (No. 50) with two stars, a player in the background with one star, and two players with no stars (click to enlarge):

And here’s another shot of Butkus, this time with four stars:

It’s difficult to know exactly which year(s) Illinois wore the stars. Butkus played there from 1962 to ’64. According to Getty, which is notoriously unreliable regarding photo dates, the larger shot shown above is from 1963, but that seems unlikely, because Sports Illustrated used it as a cover photo in 1964. So it seems we can safely say that Illinois used the stars in ’64, with the earlier years being a subject for further research.

It’s also not clear whether all players were eligible for the stars, or only defensive players.

1960-67: This is the situation chronicled in that Ticker item from last Friday. Rutgers awarded star decals to defensive players who made an interception. And the stars weren’t added after the game — if a player picked off a pass, a coach would add a star to his helmet right there on the sideline during the game. The stars were first awarded in 1960 and the protocol continued through 1967. The Ticker-linked article is excellent — strongly recommended. Here are some photos (if you can’t see the slideshow below, click here):

This is the earliest visually documented instance of merit decals that I’m aware of. However…

1956-59, maybe: When Butkus and other Illinois players wore the stars in the early 1960s, their coach was Pete Elliott. But in 1956, he was the head coach at Nebraska (at the age of 29!), and then he was the head coach at Cal from 1957 through ’59. Elliott is now deceased, but in a 2007 interview he discussed one of his Nebraska assistant coaches, Gene Stauber:

Elliott: Gene Stauber … coached pass defense and during the war he had been with a unit that wrote citations for war valor and so on. Every guy that intercepted a pass, he would write a citation and give them a star. Put it on his helmet. Everybody on the team after a while wanted to read what he said. (Laughs) He wrote it up like a war story. “In the heat of battle during the fourth quarter with the score being so and so and the game on the line, the defensive back, whatever their name was, made an exceptional effort in driving through the man, leaped high to intercept the pass to save the day for Nebraska and so on and so forth.” … I think a lot of teams put stars on their helmets for various things but that was the first time I had ever heard of it and Gene was the guy that did it.

Interviewer: Maybe Ohio State copied it?

Elliott: Could be. They have their buckeyes and they put them on. We did at Cal. We put them on. The players loved it.

So according to that account, the 1956 Nebraska team and Elliot’s late-’50s Cal squads all wore merit stars. I’ve so far been unable to turn up any photo documentation, but that’s another subject for further research.

Those are all of the pre-1968 examples that I know about, although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were others. Frankly, I had been unaware of most of these entries on the historical timeline until I saw that Rutgers article in Friday’s Ticker, which sent me down the rabbit hole.

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Blank generation: Quick quiz: What did the two teams in last night’s Monday Night Football game have in common from a uniform perspective (aside from the unfortunate Native American thing)?

Answer: As you can see above, they are the only two NFL teams with blank nose bumpers. Every other team has a logo in that spot.

But there’s an asterisk, which I hadn’t been aware of until reader Michael Geddes (who happens to be the assistant equipment director at Villanova) pointed it out to me last night: The Chargers use a wordmark on their bumpers — except on their Riddell SpeedFlex helmets, which have blank bumpers. Weird! You can see both styles in this photo (click to enlarge):

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Collector’s Corner
By Brinke Guthrie

The Twins play the Yankees tonight in the American League Wild Card Game, so we’re leading off this week’s edition of Collector’s Corner with this nifty 1960s Minnesota Twins bobblehead. Can’t see any cracks or creases on him, which is rare given his age.

And just to give equal time to the Yanks: Way back in the day (1950), you’d wear this Tip-Top Bread (With That New Good Taste) sun visor to (the old) Yankee Stadium to watch the Bronx Bombers play.

Now for the rest of this week’s picks:

• This is an excellent 1970s Denver Broncos “XXL” three-quarter-sleeve T-shirt. This one is made by Champion, and it is guaranteed to be comfortable, ’cause (along with DeLong) they always were. It says XXL on the chest, but in fact is an L.

• This is, according to the seller, an early- to mid-1970s Dallas Cowboys sideline jacket from Sand-Knit. I remember Staubach, Morton, Reeves and the guys wearing this style, for sure!

• Got a nice-looking Riddell TK-2 Kra-Lite LA Rams helmet lamp here. The seller does mention a company name label on the underside of the base, so it’s apparently not a DIY.

• Here’s another 1970s NFL helmet for you, this one in the form of a plaque for the Los Angeles Rayduhz.

• These 1970s-1980s “Team NFL” Steelers gloves from Wells Knit look nice.

• One more from the Stillers: This 1970s gear bag shows the facemask in yellow. The side of the bag itself is yellow, so they just left the mask as is. Don’t you think Steelers helmets would look good with a yellow mask?

• This is a 1970s NFL coin purse. Has to be later in the decade due to the Bucs and Seahawks. (Fourteen more teams on the other side.) Got a little tear on the corner there, but all in all looks good.

• Classic-looking 1970s Packers ski cap from Sears right here.

• This Reebok-era Patriots sideline jacket was team-worn and comes with a certificate of authenticity.

• Check out the helmet artwork on these mid- to-late-1970s NFL stickers.

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KRC update: The latest installment of Key Ring Chronicles is about a guy who keeps a red golf ball on his key ring. There’s a really nice story behind that — check it out here.

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T-shirt reminders: In case you missed it on Friday, our latest limited-edition shirt from the Uni Watch Artist’s Series is by the great Sean Kane (shown at right; click to enlarge). It’s available here through next Monday, Oct. 9. Additional info here.

We also have a bunch of new Naming Wrongs designs. Check those out here.

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The Ticker
By Alex Hider

Baseball NewsThe Braves’ letterhead doesn’t quite match the team’s jersey script (from @Phixated). … With Jeffrey Loria set to sell the Marlins, many fans were concerned the “Bobblehead Museum” at Marlins Park would be gone. However, the Museum will stay in the ballpark, and the rest of Loria’s 900 bobbleheads will be donated to Cooperstown (from Brinke). … TCU and New Era are giving away three caps made of old baseball jerseys to fans who share their baseball memories with TCU Athletics on Twitter.

NFL NewsLots of Washington players were wearing socks with upside-down striping during last night’s game. The burgundy stripe is supposed to be on top, as seen here (from @SteveBCreations). … Washington QB Kirk Cousins appears to have some sort of mesh covering on his ear holes (from Mike Cooper). … A woman at Sunday’s Rams game — reportedly Rams coach Wade Phillips’s sister — was wearing an interesting T-shirt that included the names of all of Phillips’ former teams, with all but the Rams crossed out (from Ignacio). … A few Panthers players appear in an ad for Bojangles wearing jerseys without an NFL logo (from Jay Clink). … The NFL “Salute to Service” jackets this year include a thin stripe evoking military medals that is modeled after team jersey/pants stripes (from Frank Barber).

College Football NewsYesterday was the 79th anniversary of Michigan wearing the winged helmet for the first time (from Josh Claywell). … Many of my fellow Ohio Bobcats know that Nelson Dining Hall on campus just got a facelift, but Noah Wolf reports that some decorations are already falling down. He also sent along photos of old early aughts jerseys hanging in the dining hall. … This is how a real equipment manager proposes. Congrats to Pat Swoboda, the University of Central Missouri’s equipment manager (from Clint Richardson).

High School Football NewsUpdate from yesterday’s post: Larry Kamenec has an explanation as to why the referees could have forced a team to wear pinnies in a green/purple matchup. He says his father-in-law is colorblind and has trouble differentiating between green and purple. It could be at least one official was colorblind on the same spectrum, although you’d think being colorblind might be dealbreaker for being a football official. … Color-on-color matchup last weekend between Long Beach Poly and Wilson High Schools of California (from @Serstylz2).

Hockey News: A Golden Knights fan updated his jersey by adding a beverage accessory to the crest. I mean, Vegas is a party city (from Eric Juergens). … The NHL regular season begins tomorrow night. If you want to brush up on what you’ll be seeing out on the ice, here’s Paul’s season preview column from last week.

Basketball News: Here’s a good breakdown of which schools are outfitted by which companies for the major college hoops conferences (thanks, Brinke). … New uniforms for Valpo? Could be (from Joel Mathwig). … No pics of new game jerseys, but it appears that College of Charleston will be wearing Under Armour uniforms this season (from @willchitty4). … New unis for UMass Lowell (from Kyle Knox). … We got a sneak peak of the Heat’s new throwback jersey yesterday (from @SJZIP1).

Grab Bag The University of Louisville’s $160 million contract could be in jeopardy due to the FBI’s ongoing bribery investigation (thank Phil). … Check out this awesome poster that gives the standings of all divisions of the English Football Association from 1965-66 (from Ron Duany Derksen).

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Breakdown: Tom Petty died yesterday at the age of 66. He’ll always be special to me because the first real rock show I ever saw (i.e., not a cover band in the high school gym or something like that) was a Petty show at the Nassau Coliseum in 1981. So when it comes to live rock and roll — something that’s been a significant part of my life — you could say I lost my virginity to Tom Petty.

In an industry where so many of the lifers are assholes, Petty was, based on what I’ve heard over the years, a decent guy. He had his limitations as a songwriter, but his basic approach to his music was always honorable, and I still like several of his radio hits. A shame that he died so young. RIP. — Paul

Comments (72)

    Tom Petty wasn’t my first, but was one of my best. Saw him at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 96 or 97. Small venue, great live music. It will always rank among the top 5 shows I’ve ever seen. RIP.

    That Raiders helmet plaque is a fraud on many levels. The font is wrong on the logo and they didn’t play in LA during the 1970s. I hope someone doesn’t drop $50 on that.

    The company Placo made some “iffy” helmet plaques, that’s for sure. Most notably the Bears one listed on this page.


    “Here are some photo Worrell provided to me”
    “Those are all of the pre-1968 examples that know about”

    Braves jersey featured in the baseball section is part of the Cooperstown Collection line: it’s a Milwaukee Braves jersey. link

    Don’t know if it’s fair to compare a current Atlanta Braves wordmark with a replica Milwaukee Braves jersey.

    Thanks, Paul.

    Now that it’s been mentioned, I’ve always felt there was something about their letterhead that didn’t match the jersey script, specifically how “Atlanta” seems like it’s disproportionate. But maybe it’s just me.

    “one-inch Green Bay gold H-A-W-K letters that were trimmed in black”

    As opposed to the Pittsburgh gold that the Hawkeyes use on their helmets and uniforms now.

    “and the “Flying Hawk” award was placed only on the right side of the helmet for those earning them.”

    The waiting was the hardest part when news his death first broke, whether waiting to see if he would recover, or if the inevitable would occur. RIP Tom Petty.

    Tom Petty was the first music video I ever saw. The first CD I ever bought, and the first concert I ever attended. I’ve seen him at least 10 times, mostly at Summerfest. He loved coming to Milwaukee, and we loved him back. I always thought this tour may be his last big one (he even said so earlier this year), but not like this. I’m devastated.

    Hey Paul,

    Just a quick note – the school isn’t Miami of Ohio. It’s either Maimi University or Miami (OH). Yes, we alumni get very nit-picky about it but it’s the name of our school.

    Hmmm. I attended Miami (then came to my senses and transferred to UC) and always heard “Miami of Ohio.”

    Obviously a change in recent years; however, I am not falling for it. My late father graduated from “Miami of Ohio” in 1950 (thanks to the G.I. Bill).

    The placement of the stripe on the salute to service apparel you linked certainly appears deliberate in terms of the type of imagery it wants to evoke, but the motif of a stripe bar is something that Nike’s been putting on a good portion of their products for a few months now. They’re trying to replicate the stripe pattern that’s on parts of the team’s uniform (usually helmet, but there are other examples), and then just making up a stripe pattern for teams that don’t have one unique to them. Here’s Aaron Rodgers warming up before a preseason game:


    and this is this season’s zip hoodie available to all Nike-outfitted schools:


    There are lots of other apparel examples including other shirts, hats, other jackets, etc for all teams that have this little motif this year.

    Saw Tom Petty at Safeco Field this past August. So glad we had the chance to see the concert. Says something about someone when the “rookie” in his band has only been with him 24 years. Rest In Peace.

    “…you’d think being colorblind might be dealbreaker for being a football official…”

    I’m pretty sure the Americans with Disabilities Act covers colorblindness.

    I’m sure it also covers blindness, but there are all sorts of jobs for which a blind person is, by definition, unqualified.

    The ADA prohibits job *discrimination*; it does not prohibit maintaining reasonable job standards.

    I think the pinnies might be a link to resolve the issue.

    IIRC, one of the cases that went to court for the ADA was a little person who was told she couldn’t work at Starbucks because she couldn’t reach some things. The court ruled in the woman’s favor because a reasonable accommodation would be to provide a step stool.

    If being able to discern colors is an “essential” part of the job, the ADA provides no protection from discrimination.

    In other legal matters, it’s surpassing strange that after the Louisville AD announced, to great fanfare, that he’d inked a deal w/Adidas, that Louisville’s administration waited more than a month to assert that he lacked the authority to do so. It’s almost as if during that time something happened w/regard to that deal that brought it, and by extension the institution, into disrepute (dubious criminality aside).

    In theory, being a referee is all about spotting the fouls and calling them. Being able to tell purple from green isn’t quite an essential part of that job. Ideally, one team would have white jerseys and we wouldn’t have that problem.
    But yeah, there’s a huge difference between that and, in my favorite example, an electrician. As an electrician, colors of wires mean different things due to industry standards, so you REALLY REALLY REALLY need to be able to tell colors apart so you don’t blow the circuits. That’s an essential element. You can work around a colorblind ref, but not a colorblind electrician. No ADA protection for the electrician.

    I agree. As an official, it’s important that we can tell players from two teams apart, especially in sports where players from both teams are simultaneously involved in groups of three or more people. That’s why most sports and leagues have rules that state the two teams must wear contrasting jerseys (one being white, or a very light color).

    I officiate in a football league where few teams have white jerseys; almost every game is color vs color. It makes things a bit difficult when three of the teams have combinations of black and red, and at least two teams wear maroon/burgundy. We even have navy vs royal blue. We have to use pant or helmet color to discern teams at times. When play happens fast, and multiple people are fighting for position to catch a ball or recover a fumble, it makes things harder when we have to spend time figuring out who is on which team.

    Long Beach Wilson shown here with the “Color-on-color” game vs Long Beach Poly has an interesting mascot/color combination. Being a Southern California school, they have the Bruin mascot of UCLA, and the colors of USC. However when I attended there the colors were true cardinal, and now they look more maroon. There website still says their colors are cardinal & gold, but I think it’s too dark. Also what was cool in the past was their football uniforms were exactly like USC, except for a Bruin on the helmet.

    link of Kirk Cousins’ helmet with the filled earhole. It actually looks to me to be foam rubber in that shot.

    Considering it appears to have been link, I’m guessing he used it last night to reduce the impact of crowd noise.

    It was very windy at Arrowhead. I think the ear covers (or foam) keep the wind noise down so he can hear the in-helmet speaker.

    I wish I’d seen Petty live in one of his own concerts.

    I saw him live in 1986 at Rich Stadium with Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. It was an experience, but not much of a concert.

    It appears I’m in the minority on this one, but for whatever reason, Tom Petty’s music never resonated with me. In fact, I attended a show in Pittsburgh many years ago where Brian Setzer and his 68 Comeback Special were opening for Petty and the Heartbreakers and after Brian’s set ended, I got up and left the arena. I had no interest in Petty. Nothing personal. It’s funny how music can impact people positively or negatively … or simply leave them feeling nothing at all.

    That said, God rest his soul.

    I’ve always been curious about “merit decals” on helmets. Thanks. It seems now all it takes to get a merit decal is to show up.


    Love the “rabbit hole” entries the most of anything that appears on the site. Really shows off the “obsessive” characteristic at the heart of Uni Watch. Curiosity for the sake of curiosity is something we could us more of in society. Always enjoy when you curiously venture down the rabbit hole.


    Tom Petty was one of my favorites. There’s just certain musicians who DON’T make bad songs, and in my opinion, Petty was one of them.

    I do think that 66 in “rock n roll years” is like 90 in “normal” years, so 66 is pretty good run.


    Interesting study of award decals. Ohio State actually used Buckeyes in 1967 on the scarlet helmet. Not 1968 when they went to silver helmet. No matter who used award decals first, Ohio State still does it best.

    I always liked that Iowa helmet with the hawk on the side.I wonder if any team put some kind of award mark on leather helmets? I don’t know of any but I wonder.


    Does anyone know why some teams leave their nose bumpers plain? I am a KC resident and a Chiefs fan and it has absolutely been killing my soul to look at those bumpers on the helmets. Last night was brutal with both teams sporting plain bumpers. The bumpers on the new Vicis helmets are huge and need something. I’m not down with all the fancy 3-D logos that are showing up on the bumpers but that is way better than plain jane bumpers.

    Yeah. Couldn’t the Chiefs use red bumpers? Does anyone even make them? That would/might give their lids a nice clean look.

    Because it’s 100% not necessary to put the team name there. Uniforms already have too many bumper stickers. They’re looking like NASCAR helmets when they have words plastered on all the open space.

    I know when Riddell was the official helmet of the NFL, only Riddell helmets could have “Riddell” on the bumper and all other helmets had to have a blank bumper. I would have to go back and look at photos but I think they went to the plain bumpers when the Riddell contract was up.

    I have always been surprised that the NFL never thought that is a nifty little place to put our shield. I guess putting the shield on the front of the helmet is too much of a reminder that head trauma is related to long term damage?

    Can’t say if this is pre-1968, but when Jim Owens was coach at the University of Washington, the team wore all gold helmets, ala Notre Dame, except…

    Instead of helmet decals, Owens awarded players who “earned” the honor with purple helmets. So you had the Huskies out on the field with some wearing gold hats, others wearing purple hats. Looked like a high school JV game.

    Seems like when Bill Curry was coach at Georgia Tech, he nicknamed his defense the “Black Watch,” and outstanding performers had the ‘GT’ helmet logo in black instead of white.

    Good stuff, Paul. Agreed with the earlier comment about these “rabbit hole” entries. I do the same with historical inquiries about my hometown. It’s fun to dig and it’s most rewarding when something “clicks” and you get a definitive answer. And it’s hard to “let it go” when you don’t get that answer.
    I don’t get too caught up in celebrity deaths but Tom Petty’s is one that actually hurts a bit. I finally pulled the trigger and went to see him this past summer. I’m so thankful I did. Just Sunday evening, I was playing at a local festival and I think we covered 4 or 5 of his songs. He was a good one and the music world will miss him.

    I am missing something? I did not see any pink on the teams last night for pinktober. Does that not start until week 5?

    Stupid question department re: Washington’s socks – if these are pull-up socks, how could the striping be upside-down for some wearers, but correct for others?

    I can see why Wisconsin didn’t keep their spelled-out stickers: I’m sure players like #35 didn’t want to be labeled as “BAD”!

    Or possibly there was too strong an incentive to stop earning new awards after reaching either BAD or BADGE. Gotta figure that if you’re a defensive lineman, you want BAD on the back of your helmet, and if anything, it’s the subsequent G that would spoil the incentive system.

    Not a fan of the salute to service sweatshirts that have team striping that’s meant to resemble a medal. I suspect some may even find it offensive. Service medals are proudly awarded for….wait for it…..service! Trying to mimic that look is classless. The salute to service thing is ridiculous. Please make it stop.

    Petty visited Israel in the 1980s, and was filmed at the Western Wall having a pretty deep conversation with a dude from the Diaspora Yeshiva Band. As he walks away, Petty remarks, “Ten years of Sunday school and this guy told me more in five minutes than I ever grasped from that.”

    In the high school color vs. color video, check out the kid in maroon with the padding deal on his helmet at 2:50.

    Petty came to Tampa on his last tour, but I wasn’t able to go. A piece a Florida died with him and I’ll miss him a lot.

    The poster for the league standings in the ‘Grab Bag’ section isn’t a poster as such – it’s a league ladder that you updated every week. The sheet had slits in at each league position and the team names were printed on little tabs that were given away across various weeks pre-season. More info can be found here: link

    and here:


    My understanding was that for Iowa in the late ’60s (coach Ray Nagel) first year letter winners received a right-side Hawk and second year letter winners received both sides. So only those seniors who had lettered each of their previous two years of eligibility had both sides, and was not common (freshmen were not eligible then). OTOH I did not know about the “H A W K” letters in back, so it’s true you learn something every day :)

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