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How the dark visor defined college football

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Every era of football has a look.

AP Photo. Banner Society illustration.

If you made a create-a-player in the NCAA Football video game that didn’t have a dark visor, then we’re just built differently.

The reason my avatar had to have it is the reason so many players want to wear it. You can ask many post-grad players their feelings, and you’ll likely get something like this:

“I wish I had some cool story,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “I just wear it because it looks good.”

”It’s just a swag thing,” Kyler Murray said back in May. Andy Dalton said basically the same thing.

“Everybody wants to look good out there,” Cardinals safety D.J. Swearinger said.

“Look good, feel good, play good,” safety Kenny Vaccaro told SB Nation.

Hell, even Philip Rivers wore one during the offseason. If it can look cool on a father of nine whose idea of fashion forward is a bolo tie then it is inelastically swaggy.

The dark visor became a distinctive mark for distinctive players starting in the late-1990s. It defined players. It gave armor personality.

The one person whose visor theory I’d love to hear is no longer with us. Sean Taylor is the person who comes to my mind’s eye most clearly when I think about a mirrored tint in the middle of a facemask. It’s not enough to want to play like him; the safeties of tomorrow want to look like him, too.

That’s a legacy.

What we’re all doing here is replicating an era.

Since the ‘70s, the basic look of the football uniform hasn’t changed. That’s around the time every player had those jerseys, remember, the ones with the holes in them all over the place? Picture those Nebraska teams of the 1990s, the ones that Adidas recently released in throwback version.

Starting around 2005, Oregon would hyper-energize what you could wear on the football field and the uniform explosion would sweep us all away. But between those hole-y jerseys and the Duck-first revolution, there was this:

The gloves were gray. The cleats were black. The sweatbands were white. Maybe a mouthpiece had a color other than the tanned Eddie George special. Perhaps a player wore team colored sleeves when it was cold, but that was it. It was really all about the visor. A bold declaration of who a player was through what he wore. A blue tint, or an orange, or a mirror, or just that deeply menacing dark.

You can find all kinds of things above the facemask now - a Nike swoosh, Adidas stripes, a team logo - but in the space before that time, there were only two ovals. The Oakley visor stood out because it wasn’t the swoosh or the stripes. It was its own thing, in its own time. That emblem had been gracing ski goggles since the 80s, but black kids growing up in Florida don’t find themselves on the ski slopes as often as they watch college football on fall Saturdays. And when I watched, what I saw in perfect clarity was cool.

A player wasn’t good because he wore the visor; he wore the visor because he was good.

It’s as if they had a visible sign on the Oakley rack at Sports Authority that said you had to be THIS good to ride. That’s backed up by a kernel of truth: An Oakley executive estimated that during the dark visor’s heyday in the early 2000s, 4-6 starters per major college team wore one. It’s also backed up by a kernel of anecdote; ask anyone who played youth or high school football from 2000 to 2010 what would happen if a kid showed up to practice wearing one who couldn’t actually play. That was a violation of the social contract.

If you show up to a basketball court with a shooting sleeve, you’d better be able to shoot. If you showed up on the football field with a visor, you’d better be able to ball out.

I can’t tell you what model facemask Lendale White wore, or how many sweatbands Steve Slaton rocked. Adrian Peterson and Devin Hester had little to distinguish them from the neck down on the TV screen until they started moving. But they had that tint, and the O on those two tabs protruding ever so slightly above the top of the facemask. It was more than a fashion accessory. It was a status symbol, showing us much more than the wearer could see or a mirrored tint could reflect.

And if I was going to win four Heisman trophies in a row, there was one piece of equipment that was non-negotiable.

As a kid you don’t know it’s marketing; you don’t know that these players, your heroes, are walking billboards. You just want to look like them. I was a 99 overall. I was going to do things on the virtual field nobody had ever done before. And I was going to look damn good doing it.

And then I remember Ricky Williams.

Sure, the visor is functionally designed for protection from hands that grasp at the facemask or gouging fingers at the bottom of a pile. Williams adapted that. He elevated that piece of plastic.

He used his visor during interviews to help him shield away the prying eyes of the outside world zeroing on him through the TV cameras shoved into his face. With a head that was spinning in so many directions full of fears and anxieties, Williams’ visor was less about swag and more about survival. He didn’t just want it, he needed it.

“When I first met him, he was unable to look me or anyone else in the eye,” Janey Barnes (the therapist who diagnosed him) said. “He would duck his head, turn his head away. He was frightened by people looking directly at him and had difficulty speaking with people one on one.

When you understand what he was going through it all makes sense.

If you ran your way into a mental prison of your own success, maybe you’d want to disappear behind the visor too. It was weird then, even a little eccentric. But hindsight gives us clarity and the past has a rose-colored tint to it when we look back on it. It’s now so indelible to his image that the Ricky Williams statue outside of Texas’ stadium features him holding a visor’d helmet in his hand.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Texas Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The plan is for that eight-foot hunk of bronze to be there for as long as they play football in Austin. In the grand scheme of everyone who’s ever put on a helmet in that stadium behind him, few looked like Ricky did on the field, and even fewer ran like him.

I doubt he cares much about the vanity, but whether you were trying to win a Heisman on the field or on an Xbox, his image -- and those elite few who looked like him -- influenced a generation.

The visors helped those players see the game a little clearer, sure, but they helped us see them a little clearer too.