A few days before the current NFL season started, the Jaguars tweeted a photo of offensive lineman Brandon Linder’s new captaincy patch on the team’s teal jersey. As several observers quickly noted, the photo also showed that the Jags had added the motivational slogan “Own It” — white lettering with gold quote marks and a gold underline — to their inner jersey collar. That hadn’t been previously announced, and it wasn’t even mentioned in the tweet, but it’s the kind of detail that uniform fans care about.
A few hours after that tweet appeared, I received an email from Bill Schaefer, who creates all the graphics for the Gridiron Uniform Database, the internet’s foremost compendium of pro football uniform history. “I just saw on Twitter today that the Jags have added ’Own It’ to the inside of their collars,” he wrote. “Have you seen any photos to indicate what color combos the phrase would appear in on the team’s other two jerseys?”
I smiled when I saw that email, because it perfectly captures the devotion to accuracy and obsessive completism that have made the Gridiron Uniform Database (GUD for short) such an indispensable resource. The “Own It” lettering on the inner collar won’t even be visible on the field, but Schaefer still wanted to show it on his GUD uniform mock-ups, and he wanted to make sure he got the colors right.
The GUD launched in 2011 with the simple but sizable goal of documenting every NFL uniform ever worn. In the 10 years since then, it has evolved to become a world-class archive of pro football visual knowledge. Among other things, it features:
Team-by-team and year-by-year uniform breakdowns for every NFL team, dating back to 1920.
Individual game-by-game uniform matchups for almost every NFL game since 1930.
Fascinating research projects, like this list of games in which NFL teams have worn white at home.
All of this, and more, has made the GUD an essential resource (and, if you’re not careful, an incredible time-suck). I find myself referring to it on a near-daily basis.
The GUD’s mock-up renderings — simple but extremely effective for conveying visual information — are all executed by Schaefer, who created the GUD with fellow football historian Tim Brulia and webmaster Rob Holecko. Schaefer is the one I’ve had the most contact with over the years (we occasionally consult each other about historical details), and his email about the “Own It” slogan prompted me to request an interview so we could discuss his research methods, how the GUD has evolved, and so on. (I certainly don't mean to slight Brulia, who I may interview at a later date.)
Schaefer and I spoke by Zoom last weekend. Here’s a transcript, edited for length and clarity.
Uni Watch: Let’s start with some basics about you. How old are you, where do you live, and what do you do for a living when you’re not researching football history?
Bill Schaefer: I’m 49, I live in Bradenton, Fla., and I teach high school math.
UW: How did you first get interested in football history and uniform history?
BS: I grew up in Pennsylvania and my dad was a Steelers season ticket holder — I’d go to the games with him when I was six, seven, eight years old. And on our way out of the stadium, we’d always stop at one of the gift stands and I’d get a new football team helmet magnet. I still have them all on my filing cabinet! That’s probably how it all started.
UW: Before the GUD, the best online database for football uniforms, at least that I was aware of, was a site called Football Uniforms Past and Present, which was run by a guy named Craig Wheeler. Was that a site an inspiration for you?
BS: Definitely. I first encountered it around 2002, when I moved to Florida. Sometimes I’d spot a mistake or something he left out — I’d email him after finding a photograph on Google Images, and he started making some of the changes. And I would download his images [of uni mock-ups] and use them as my screensaver. That was my first brush with, you know, you can actually do stuff like this on the computer and everything. And it really affected me badly when he stopped updating the site [after the 2002 season]. I was like, “Well, what about the new stuff?”
BS: Yes, we contacted Craig Wheeler and his old webmaster, and our webmaster was able to import everything to the GUD. We did that earlier this year. It was the forerunner of what we eventually built with the GUD, so we want to kind of pay homage to it.
UW: But there was a long gap between 2002, when Wheeler stopped updating his site, and 2011, when the GUD launched. How did the GUD come about?
BS: Craig’s site only went back to 1959. On your Uni Watch site, which I read regularly, I saw that a guy named Tim Brulia had been coming up with written descriptions of NFL uniforms for the seasons before that. And at the bottom, it said, “If there’s anybody who would like to try to put these words into graphic detail, please contact me.” I had a simple uniform template that I had found on the internet — it was more 2-D, instead of 3-D, like Craig Wheeler’s template — so I contacted Tim. And right away, it was like 20 or 30 email exchanges every day. I’d send him an image, and he’d be like, “Oh, can we make that blue a little more navy than royal,” or whatever.
UW: So at this point, when you were collaborating with Tim, was it understood that the two of you would try to create a definitive online uniform site?
BS: The plan was to create something to pick up the pre-history, because Craig Wheeler’s only went back to 1959.
UW: So your original goal was just to do 1920 through 1958?
BS: Actually, Tim’s idea was to start with 1932, because that was the year of the first true playoff game between the Bears and Spartans inside Chicago Stadium. The following year, they introduced divisions that played each other in a championship game, so in Tim’s mind that was really the start of modern football.
UW: And then how did the plan evolve and grow from there?
BS: We got 1932 to ’58 the way we wanted it, but neither of us has the technical ability to create a website. So while we were asking around, trying to find someone who’d be able to help us put something together, we didn’t want to just sit dormant. Some of Craig’s designs for the AFL weren’t quite right, so we said, “Well, let’s redo the AFL.” And since the AFL ran from 1960 through ’69, we said, “Okay, let’s do the NFL from ’60 to ’69.” Then we did the ’70s and ’80s, and it kind of snowballed until we finally caught up with the current state of affairs in the NFL.
UW: You’ve talked about yourself and Tim Brulia, but you also had a third partner — Rob Holecko.
BS: Yes, Rob was responsible for creating the original version of GUD. When I said before that Tim and I didn’t know how to create a website, Rob was the one who provided that expertise. But after five, six, seven years, you know, life happens, and Rob wasn’t able to keep working on the project. But he was able to locate another webmaster for us, Austin Snelick, who took a look at the site and streamlined it to make it more user- and creator-friendly. Back when Rob was running things, if I found a mistake or had to update something, I’d have to send the correction to Rob and then he’d have to upload it. But now Austin has set it up so I can do that kind of thing directly.
UW: I’ll be honest, when I first saw the template that you ended up using for your mock-ups, I was underwhelmed. I think I even said that at the time, which I now feel bad about. I thought it was too simple, too rudimentary — graphically, it felt like a step backwards from what Craig Wheeler had been using. In the years since then, I’ve come to see the flexibility and the value in your template. It works really well, much better than I initially gave it credit for. How did you arrive at that design?
BS: Craig was trying to achieve a three-dimensional look. But I prefer to work with a flat, two-dimensional template. It makes it much easier — like, you can show pants stripes going straight down the leg without having to make them curve a bit. The two-dimensional template works so much better.
UW: Yeah, I can see that now. In terms of conveying visual information, which is the whole point of a site like the GUD, your system works really well, even if it isn’t flashy.
BS: Thanks. The one that’s the particular thorn in my side lately is the darn socks.
UW: That was actually my next question! How frustrated are you by the current state of football socks? I was thinking about that during that recent Monday night game between the Raiders and the Chargers, because some of the Raiders were wearing solid black socks, some had solid white socks, some had part white and part black, and almost nobody had the true half-black and half-white, even though that’s what you ended up showing.
BS: It’s really difficult. Apparently the NFL has lost interest as far as its governance of uniform standards.
UW: Yeah, they’ve basically given up trying to police the socks, so that creates a sort of quandary for you, because if there’s no uniformity or consistency on the field, how do you decide what to show?
UW: I forget when it was, but at some point you were using animated GIFs that kind of flashed back and forth between two sock styles, to show that it wasn’t consistent throughout the team, right?
BS: Yeah, we tried that at the beginning of last season and got some positive feedback because it really reflected what was being seen on the field. The problem is that it was using up way too much bandwidth, so we were ending up with overages on our hosting. I’m keeping those graphics in case we get to a point where we can go back and re-install them. But until then, we’re going to have to stick with the static images.
UW: At the start of the current NFL season, we learned that the Jaguars had started putting that Urban Meyer slogan, “Own It,” on the inner collar of the jerseys. We knew what it looked like on the teal jerseys and then you emailed me — I think this was just a day or two before the start of the season — to ask if I knew what color the lettering was going to be for the white and black jerseys. I was very impressed that that you wanted to include that detail in your mock-up, even though it’s not visible on the field.
BS: Yeah, as soon as I see something like that, my immediate reaction is, “I gotta add that.” Even though you can’t see it on the field, our template doesn’t have an actual head occupying that space, so it’s there. We also show the “12” on the Seahawks’ collar, the “We Are All Patriots” on the Patriots’ collar, and the “1946” for the Browns. I’ve actually received emails from people saying, “Thank you for including that tiny detail, you were able to save me from buying a knockoff jersey, because it didn’t have that detail.”
UW: Really my only gripe with with the GUD is that every jersey is shown with No. 11, which I find really disappointing. You’ve taken the numeral that conveys the least amount of information about the number font, and then you’ve repeated it! So it really seems like you’re conveying less visual information than you could. What is the thinking behind that?
BS: Remember, Tim and I started documenting the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Quality photos aren’t plentiful, rosters back then often had only 20-some guys on a team, and most players were either single digits, teens or 20s. So to maximize the chances that a photo we found had a jersey number that we could use, we figured the “1” was the best numeral to use.
As we progressed toward more recent history, photos became more plentiful, but we wanted to keep things consistent by sticking with 11. More specifically, the biggest problem became the Los Angeles Rams, because trying to fit, say, a “26” inside the curl of the horn on the sleeve was extremely difficult from a graphics point of view. I can’t begin to tell you how much I tried. So 11 was better, because it’s narrow and symmetrical, so we could space it evenly.
Now, as we have gotten closer to the point where we’re not having as many corrections to the database. I’ve started thinking of ways that I would eventually like to improve things. And one thing I’d like to do — you know how when you go to purchase a jersey online and there’s an option to type in your own name and number..?
UW: Oh, so you’d like to add an interactive feature.
BS: Right. So if you want to see a 1940s Bears uniform with this number or that number, you could see how it looked. But that would involve having to build a secondary database of all the different numbers in all the different fonts and colors. Different sizes, too, because front numbers were usually smaller than back numbers. That would probably end up being as much or more work than what we’ve already sunk into the website, so it’s a pipe dream for now, but it’s definitely something that I would eventually like to do.
UW: You mentioned how the original site was based on Tim Brulia’s research, but you do research as well, right?
BS: Oh, yes.
UW: So do you spend hours at the library poring over microfilm, or do you use Newspapers.com, or do you contact NFL teams and ask them about their archives, or what?
BS: The surprising thing I’ve found in all this is that most teams have no interest in their own history. It’s almost sad.
UW: I’ve experienced the same thing.
The biggest issue that we’ve run into is that even major newspapers in NFL cities didn’t always put photos with their articles, so that’s extremely problematic. But the thing that really hurts is that these newspaper archives don’t include any of the secondary newspapers in those cities. So we can see The Philadelphia Inquirer but not any of the other Philadelphia newspapers, and we don’t live near Philadelphia so we can’t just go to the library.
UW: Do you have a “white whale” — a uniform design that you haven’t been able to document, despite your best research efforts?
BS: One of our white whales had always been the patch that the Cardinals wore for three preseason games in 1976. They actually wore two patches — one was the 1976 bicentennial patch, but we couldn’t make out the other one. They wore it for a game in Japan and then two other games back in the States. You can see it in some photos and videos, but had never been able to find a close-up picture of it. I contacted the Cardinals, I contacted St. Louis newspapers, I contacted St. Louis Cardinals fan links on Twitter. Then I learned that the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a jersey from that game in Japan, so I contacted them — no response.
Eventually, a gentleman who frequents our site and collects NFL patches — he’s actually in Ireland — he emailed the Hall of Fame. And they said, “Well, we can’t send you the patch, but we’ll have somebody pull out the jersey and take some photos of the patch for you.”
UW: So they responded to him even though they hadn’t responded to you?
BS: Yeah. And then he forwarded the photos to us, so we were able to add it to the site. That was either this past spring or early summer. It turns out that the patch is for the Japanese city of Suwa, which is the sister city of St. Louis. One interesting thing is that the background of the patch is plain cloth, without any embroidery.
UW: It must have been tremendously satisfying to solve that one. Now that that’s been crossed off the list, what’s your current white whale?
BS: There are a couple patches that we’re still trying to find a quality image of. One is the patch that the 1945 Cleveland Rams wore to support the war effort. We would love to find a picture of that, but all we can get are black-and-white photos taken at a distance where you can’t really make out the details.
Also, we’re missing a few uniform matchups, mostly from the 1930s. If any of your readers want to pitch in by checking out some of those secondary newspapers at their local libraries, I’ll give you the list of games we’re trying to document.
UW: One of my favorite things about the GUD is seeing the uniform colors from the 1920s and ’30s, because of course we’re used to seeing only black-and-white photos from that period, or occasionally grainy black-and-white video. How do you determine the colors, and how difficult is that for you?
BS: The Hall of Fame has been able to help us somewhat. If they have a jersey that’s on display, they’ll take a quick picture for us, so we can get the right shade of navy or whatever. We’ve also worked with [sports color expert] Donovan Moore, who does the TruColor website.
But sometimes it’s tricky, and the hardest part is that black-and-white photography does nothing to help us for red and blue, because you can’t tell one from the other. In fact, an update I just made to the site involved the 1936 New York Yankees of the old 1930s American Football League. We originally thought they wore navy jerseys, navy pants, navy helmets. But then our friend Larry Schmidt from Big Blue Interactive, found a program, and on the cover you can clearly see that the jersey is not the same color as the pants. But which was navy and which was red? So I went ahead and made two different updates of what we originally had — one assuming one set of colors, and one assuming the opposite set. Fortunately for us, Larry Schmidt was able to find a New York Herald Tribune article, where it said that the Yankees were in Navy jerseys, and blood red helmets and pants — which, if we had to guess, would have been the least likely possibility! So now that’s what’s on the site.
BS: When Austin, our new webmaster, took over. I guess it was a hobby of his to include the field designs.
UW: You mentioned you’re a teacher. Do your students know that you do this, and and what do they think of it?
BS: They don’t know. I’ve actually kind of tried to keep this hobby on the personal level.
UW: What about your family? What do they think of all this?
BS: My wife’s big thing is, “Why aren’t you doing something with it that you can make some money off of?”
UW: Obviously, it would be a huge undertaking to document the world of college football. So at the risk of giving you a heart attack, have you ever considered adding college teams to the site?
BS: Not for one second! That would definitely be too much. Even going back to the 1920s, you had hundreds of college teams. And even if you’re able to track down all the photos, and if you were able to get the cooperation of the individual schools to help you figure out the colors, that would be a tremendously huge amount of work. I look at it from this point of view: It’s taken us over 10 years to get [the GUD] where we are now. I can’t imagine how long it would take to put together something related to college football.
Now, modern college football, with the number of people generating uniform trackers for the conferences, you could probably get different people to do different conferences and work it back to, you know, maybe the ’90s or the ’80s, or maybe even the ’70s or ’60s. But as far as going back before that, that would be a lifetime project.
And there you have it. If you’re now already a GUD fan, I urge you to get acquainted with it and explore its many pleasures. But be warned — it can be addictive.
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Meanwhile, over on the ice: Two notable NHL developments took place earlier this week — the regular season started, and the annual Uni Watch NHL Season Preview, with all of this year’s uniform and logo news, was published. If you haven’t seen it already, you can check it out here.
And if you’re a basketball fan, my annual NBA Season Preview will be out next Monday.
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Pin it: Each year around this time, designer Todd Radom and I collaborate on a Uni Watch press pin. They’re inspired by the rich tradition of World Series Press Pins, and the idea behind them is that everyone in the Uni Watch comm-uni-ty can rightfully wear a press pin, because so many of you contribute info to me via your emails, tweets and observations.
As you can see above, this year’s pin design is based on the look of championship rings. It’s been produced in a numbered edition of 200 and is available here while supplies last.
Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.