“It was very humiliating,” says artist behind USS Salt Lake City football helmets in Utah


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IMPERIAL, Neb. (ABC4) – When the University of Utah football team takes the field against Oregon this Saturday, the Utes will step away from their usual red, white and black uniforms.

Instead, on Military Appreciation Night, the team will don an all-gray monochrome look to honor and celebrate the USS Salt Lake City, one of the most decorated battleships to serve in WWII.

While the uniforms, accented by the same stripes that adorned the heavy cruiser, will be quite inspiring, the real icing on the cake will be the hand-painted helmets with a dramatic airbrushed scene of the ship firing its guns as it does. maybe did. watched during one of his many conflicts in the Pacific during the war.

These helmets, which are sure to shine under the lights of Rice-Eccles Stadium and dazzle a huge audience in a nationally televised game, received their highly creative look from one artist, Armando Villarreal. , from the basement of his house and a studio in a nondescript apartment building on his father’s property in the small town of Imperial, Nebraska.

For over a year, Villarreal and his wife Lora have worked tirelessly, whenever they have time away from their obligations as parents and from his full-time job for the city’s water utility, to bring life to life. just like the battleship, put back 150 football helmets.

Villarreal, who also worked on football helmets for the University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh this year, doesn’t even know how long it took to complete the job, but it’s been a work in progress since. more than a year.

“We do 20 at a time and it was like I just got out of work and came to paint and if I have to watch the kids for a little while or on weekends I paint. Every minute we had, we were painting, ”Villarreal tells ABC4.com over the phone. “Some nights you have three, other nights you have 15, but they were always at different stages, so it’s a little hard to keep track.”

Gradually, painting a base color, masking the outline of the vessel and filling it in with details before a final clear coat, the helmets were made in lots of 20 and sent back to Schutt for final construction until that time. that the 150 have been completed.

While working on the Utah helmets, which he calls his most “significant” – he has done several hand-painted projects over the years for the helmet maker, Schutt – Villarreal thought about his own. bond with the military as a veteran of the army that was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq two decades ago. He also thought of his grandfather, who served in the Navy in World War II and probably knew all about the USS Salt Lake City and its legacy as the most committed ship in the entire Pacific Fleet.

“The army is very close and dear to my heart,” says Villarreal. “So this has been a very, very cool project and a very, very close project to my heart. “

Obtaining a high level of detail and appreciation of the ship’s history through the entire uniform was a priority for Utah’s football program, as evidenced by an 18-page presentation sent to the painter by the team’s equipment director, Cody Heidbreder, to start the effort. . The image used as a reference for the helmet is from an official Navy photo, with the turret and cannon shots added to “make it a little more exciting,” Villarreal says.

As a bonus, Villarreal was able to give each headgear its own signature; a small “AV” and numbering out of 150, can be found in tiny airbrushed letters above the right ear hole of the headset.

At the invitation of the university and its football program, Villarreal and his family will be at the game this weekend to see the helmets in action. This will be his first trip to see the Utes in person, although it won’t be the first time he’s made a helmet for the team. Villarreal also made the returning Utes helmets in 1966 in 2019.

“They really adopted us as family even though we’re from Nebraska,” he says of Utah’s equipment personnel, joking that he’s required by law in his state of. originally being a fan of the Cornhuskers. “Everyone I worked with at university was amazing. “

When the lights at Rice-Eccles Stadium turned on the helmets on Saturday night and created what is sure to catch the oohs and awws of many sports fans, military enthusiasts and art lovers, Villarreal expects let it be a surreal moment.

“It’s very humiliating and especially a project like this with the military context, I don’t even know how to describe it. It doesn’t seem real most of the time, ”he says. “It’s my favorite helmet so far, for sure.”

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