Monday, June 12, 2017

Exclusive: Mysterious 1964 Auburn Football Helmet

Auburn's football uniforms have been nearly the same for the last 60 years or so. But there were plenty of changes the years prior to to 1966, when the AU logo first donned the helmets. From orange and green uniforms in the 1930s, to blank helmets that eventually sported the player numbers, it took Auburn a while to find a true uniform style that they would eventually stick with for decades to come.

ed dyas auburn football colorized
Colorization by Clint Richardson

One of the most obscure oddities in Auburn uniform history was recently discovered. AUD friend @PosingPlainsman sent me an email a while ago detailing a photo he found on eBay. Take a look below (click to enlarge):

tucker frederickson 1964 auburn football
(image used with permission from Alabama Media Group)

The man in the photo is none other than All-American running back Tucker Frederickson. The subject of much attention during his playing days, being called "the most complete football player I've ever seen," by his head coach Shug Jordan. Though Frederickson isn't the point to focus on in this photo. Instead, take a look in the background. On top of the lockers sit the football helmets worn during the 1964 season, when the player numbers donned the sides. But wait, there's no numbers visible. But there is something else. Let's take a closer look:

tucker frederickson auburn football 1964
(image used with permission from Alabama Media Group)
Those aren't numbers on the side of that helmet. In fact, it looks like a tiger head. But that's no Auburn Tiger design. What's going on here? What actually is on the helmet and where did it come from? So many questions that need to be answered here.

Around the time PosingPlainsman sent this image to me, I was contacted by Robert Clay of the Alabama Media Group for some information for an upcoming video about Auburn's orange uniforms. I sent the original image to Robert, hoping that he might have some better quality files. Turns out, the AMG actually had a copy of the original negatives taken from these photos. Per Robert, the photos are from a player profile done on Frederickson back in 1964. So there's some more context for the mystery.

PosingPlainsman's original email had a theory regarding the tiger head. The thought was that the design used was awfully similar to the Esso tiger used in marketing campaigns starting in the 1950s. In 1959, Esso's tagline that accompanied ads and jingles and commercial was "put a tiger in your tank." Esso was merged with Exxon in 1972. In 1995, the two companies helped establish the Save the Tiger Fund, to help preserve Asia's tiger population.
esso tiger
The Esso tiger was a marketing
success back in the 1950s and 1960s

The theory isn't too far fetched. Only until recently, one of the Exxon stations in Alexander City, just 40 miles north of Auburn, sported the Tiger on top of the station. There's no telling how many Esso stations were located in and around Auburn during the time. It's not hard to imagine someone associated with the Auburn football program picking up a sticker or two of the Esso Tiger and slapping it on the helmet.

After searching for any clues possible, I decided to go to the source. I tracked down Tucker Frederickson to ask about this very mystery. Back in his home state of Florida, Frederickson is a board member for the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, which helps ensure the conservation of fish and wildlife in the state. Mr. Frederickson had no memory of the photo itself, let alone the helmet in question, when I spoke with him over the phone.

After getting off the phone with Frederickson, I knew that there wasn't much chance to finding the truth behind this all. Frederickson mentioned on the phone that he and his teammates would joke and play around with each other and typically playing pranks on one another. With that in mind, I think I have an answer for this mystery helmet design.

I came to the conclusion that the photos were taken before or after a practice session for Auburn. Therefore, the helmets shown in the image are practice lids, hence the reason they don't have the player numbers on the sides. The helmet in question with the odd tiger head was the result of a team prank. Someone on the team happened to come across a sticker or decal with the tiger head - possibly the same Esso tiger popular at the time - and slapped it on a helmet so that they would have to go to practice with it on. With all the stories of Coach Shug Jordan, it's easy to imagine how much of a stickler Jordan was on the football field. I can just see Coach Jordan erupting at a player, forcing them to run the entirety of the practice session and long after, for altering their uniform in any form or fashion.
auburn football tiger head concept
(photo via Michael Niziolek, Ledger-Enquirer)
But what if the Tiger head had actually stuck? What if Coach Jordan didn't flip out at the sight of something foreign being on one of his player's helmets? What would it look like on today's uniforms?

Great questions. And here's about all I can do to answer those - a PhotoShop mockup.

Take a look at the image to the right. It just looks wrong. I think we've all gotten so accustomed to seeing the football helmets with the AU logo that anything different is simply wrong and should never be thought of again. But, at the least, it makes for an interesting discussion piece. Maybe we should add this to our Auburn football uniform concept list?

So there you have it. A mystery that, well, is still very much so a mystery.

What do you think about this? Have a different theory (or even answers!) to what exactly is on the helmet? How it got there? Be sure to comment below or email me with any details you would like to share.

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  1. I think you're correct about the sticker on the helmet being the Esso tiger. The shape and shading match exactly... except that the tiger head on the helmet is facing the opposite direction (right) than the sticker you linked to (left). Now obviously, it's possible Esso produced stickers with the tiger facing either direction, but I do think it's interesting that all of the memorabilia I can find of that version of the Esso tiger are all facing to the left. The only instances of an Esso tiger I can find online that face right all seem to be re-drawings of the tiger, not using the original source illustration. The inability to find an examples of vintage Esso stickers online make me wonder if this might be more than just grabbing an available sticker from a local gas station. The uniquely mirrored nature of that sticker make me wonder if it wasn't (re)produced specifically for a helmet - possibly as a bootleg done by a student equipment manager or something.

    1. If it was more than just a prank, and a true possible prototype, then it would be very plausible it was a bootleg job, like you mentioned, just in order to see the design on both sides of the helmet.

  2. Does Craftmaster printers have an internal historian? I know Shug and staff worked with them to design the interlocking AU (Shug wanted the eagle flying through the A). Maybe it was an early predecessor of that.

    1. I didn't know about Craftmaster before. That will certainly be added to the list of places to check out.