When the Indianapolis Colts unveiled a throwback uniform in July, some fans noticed that defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, who modeled the new uni for the unveiling photo shoot, had the outline of a Christian cross showing through each of his thigh pads.
Buckner didn't add that messaging to his pads just for the photo shoot. He wore the cross-clad pads on the field for much of last season. (He’s also dabbled with other thigh pad designs.) And he's not the only football player who's been customizing his upper-leg gear: Over the past eight years or so, a growing number of NFL and college players have been wearing a variety of designs on their thigh pads, including team logos, uni numbers, and a lot more.
Many fans mistakenly think these custom pads come from Nike or one of the other big sportswear companies. But they’re actually from a one-man operation called treDCAL (pronounced “tread-cal”), which has quietly been changing the look of football, one pair of thigh pads at a time.
The guy behind treDCALs is Brian Gudalis. I recently interviewed him via Zoom. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Uni Watch: Where does the name “treDCALs” come from?
Brian Gudalis: At first we were just making a piece of foam with adhesive backing that would stick to the player’s thigh pad. Now we make the whole pad, but originally it was just a decal — a 3D decal. So our original name was 3Dcalz. But when we went to trademark the name, it turned out there was a company out in California that sold, like, hula dancers that you’d put on your dashboard, and they had a similar name. We didn’t want to get into any trademark issues, so we went with a different name. My wife came up with it.
UW: So was the “tre” [pronouncing it “tray”] supposed to represent “three”? That’s how you got “treDCALs”?
BG: Right. But it’s pronounced “tread-cals,” not “tray-decals.”
UW: How and when did you first get the idea for this product?
BG: Back in 1998 or so, I was a middle school football coach, and I would see the three lines on the thigh pads. And I always thought, why did they just have the three lines?
UW: And those three ridges had been like that forever, right? I mean, basically, the thigh pad had not changed in generations.
BG: Right, they hadn’t changed at all. And I eventually learned that the three lines were for stability reasons. So I thought, okay, we can figure out this stability thing, that’s not that difficult. I didn’t do anything about it, but I never stopped thinking about it.
Fast forward to around 2012. By this time I had become an attorney — business law and litigation, mostly. I was billing a lot of hours and I thought, you know, I’ve had this idea in the back of my head forever — I’m gonna try to figure it out. So I got an X-Acto knife and some foam, and I figured out how to make a three-dimensional design. Here’s the first one I made [holds up design].
UW: It almost looks like a cookie with icing on it!
BG: That’s what everyone says. At the time, I didn’t even have a pair of football pants, so I had to borrow a pair from a buddy of mine who had a kid playing football. And sure enough, the design showed through perfectly.
So then I played with it a little bit to see what would work and what wouldn’t work. And then I cut the Alabama “A” logo by hand, with the X-Acto knife. And that kinda started it all.
UW: So that’s two different colors of foam — grey and white?
BG: Yes. What I realized was when you use two different colors, it would give it a shadow effect that looked really nice. And then with other colors, the effect is different and it won’t pop the same way. So we learned things like that, and that led to this for the University of Kentucky. They wore this in 2013 against Mississippi State.
UW: So they actually wore that on the field? How did you make that happen?
BG: We live here in Lexington, Ky., and we have some contacts who led us to their equipment manager. And the thing is, I hadn’t even tried them out in a game yet — not even for a youth league or anything like that. We started at the top!
UW: Oh, so when you made that prototype that looks like a cookie, your friend’s kid — the friend who loaned you the pants — didn’t actually wear the design?
BG: Nope, not until later, when he was in high school. He plays for Murray State now. The thing is, Paul, at first we couldn’t mass-produce them. When we went out to try to and get it made, we would get ungodly numbers on how much this thing would cost to produce. But for that Kentucky game, we found a local guy who was able to make them for a certain price.
UW: How many did you make for that game?
BG: About 100 or 125 pairs. Something like that.
UW: And did they pay you for them?
BG: No, I just gave them away. I thought, you know, it would blow up overnight.
UW: How’d that work out?
BG [laughing]: Well, here I am years later, talking to you about trying to move this company along! The thing is, the treDCALs work better with white or light-colored pants, and Kentucky wore royal blue that night, so you couldn’t really see them. It just didn’t pop like I thought it would.
UW: You must have been disappointed.
BG: Yeah. But then I reached out to Michigan State, completely randomly, and they wore them two weeks later. They wore all white, and it looked great. That was when they were starting that good run — they hadn’t beaten Nebraska on the road in years. I flew to Nebraska to watch it. That Michigan State game sort of opened the door.
UW: How did you make the leap from college ball to the NFL?
BG: College was kind of trickling along. We put up a website, we had a sale here and there, then we’d go weeks without having a sale. I didn’t put any money into advertising because every last nickel I had was going toward getting patents. So it was about three years later, probably around 2017, I DM’d [Bears running back] Jordan Howard, because he had worn them in Indiana.
UW: So you’d gotten a few more college programs by then?
BG: Yeah, we had I think about eight or nine college programs — Indiana, USF, Penn State, a few others. I remember [Penn State running back] Saquon Barkley wore them in the  Rose Bowl and got grass stains on them, which looked really cool.
So like I said, I made a pair for Jordan Howard — one with the Chicago “C” and one with his uniform number. And then I’m just scrolling along looking at pictures one day, and there’s Jordan Howard wearing them!
My wife and I went nuts, because we finally had an NFL guy. From there, we got a couple more — maybe 10 guys that year. The next year, we might have had 30. And then we came out with the full thigh pad, not just the decal, and from there it boomed. We got a manufacturer who cuts them out for us, but it was still my wife, me, and our four kids putting everything together. Two of them have gone to college now, so we lost our two best workers.
UW: Do you typically deal directly with individual players, or with team equipment managers?
BG: It’s usually been players, but this is the first year where equipment managers have called us up. They offer it as another option to the players.
UW: Some of your designs include team logos, like that Chicago “C” you mentioned. How does that work in terms of licensing and trademarked logos and all of that?
BG: For anything trademarked, I only sell to the people who are within that organization.
UW: So if I want that Bears logo, you’ll only sell it to me if I’m a Bears player? I can’t buy it if, say, I’m a high school player who happens to be a Bears fan?
BG: Right, I won’t sell to you.
UW: Aside from trademark and licensing issues, the NFL is so notoriously strict about uniform protocols. Are you surprised that they’ve allowed players to wear your product?
BG: Not really. They’re just thigh pads. You know, the three lines have always been there, right? I just made the lines look different. And the beauty of it is, in 2013 the NFL started requiring the players to wear thigh pads, because back then nobody wanted to wear them. And now you’ve got players who want to wear them because of our product. They get that protection, but they also look great.
UW: When the Colts unveiled the 1956 throwbacks that they’re going to wear this season, DeForest Buckner was wearing those Christian crosses. That was the first time I’d noticed treDCALs being worn in a uniform-unveiling photo shoot. Were you excited to see that?
BG: Very. And by the way, that cross is our best seller. We sell more crosses than we do of any other design. Player numbers are a close second. Between those two, that makes up 80% of our sales.
UW: Has your product been featured in other unveiling photos, and I just didn’t notice?
BG: I can’t think of any other NFL teams that have done it. But in college, North Carolina did it when they went from Nike to Jordan in 2017. They had the NC logos in the pants. And it was commented on all over — everyone thought it was a Jordan thing, a Jumpman thing. But those were literally made by me and my wife.
UW: All told, how many NFL players have worn your product?
BG: I’ve lost count. I think around 600.
UW: And how many Super Bowls have you been in?
UW: For players who already wear your product, will they request a different design for a big game, like a playoff game or a Super Bowl?
BG: Not usually. These guys are kind of creatures of habit, you know?
UW: What are some of the most unusual or surprising requests you’ve had in terms of logos or graphics?
BG: [KC wideout] Tyreek Hill has cheetahs, which is pretty cool. One NFL guy requested pictures of his kids. That was too complex — we couldn’t do it.
UW: Anything else you couldn’t do?
BG: We’ve had a bunch of college kids wanting “horns down.” And I said I can’t do that. I mean, my daughter goes to Texas A&M, so I should be able to do it, but I’m not gonna do anything that’s derogatory or defamatory. And I have had a lot of people who want to drop the F-bomb on there or something, but I’m not doing anything like that.
UW: With all the social justice messaging on uniforms in the past year, did you get requests for the letters “BLM,” or the raised fist?
BG: We did both. We did a good number of them, too — not like a huge push, but we did enough that it was worth it, just to say, “If you want this, we have it for you.”
UW: Do you have any competitors?
BG: Not really. We have seen some knock-offs, but we’ve put a lot of money into our patents, so that protects us.
UW: Have any of the big companies come sniffing around, looking to partner with you or even buy you out? Is that something you’d consider?
BG: We’ve had some discussions with a few potential investors. It’s something I’d consider. You know, I’ve given up a lot — when my daughter left for college, I went in my room and and teared up pretty good. It was more than just her leaving — it was that I missed a lot of time with her because I spent so much time on this project. I mean, I didn’t miss a game, I didn’t miss a recital or anything like that, but my mind was always on this business because I was trying to keep it going and it wasn’t making any money. It’s occupied my mind for so long.
UW: So this whole time, you’ve been doing this on the side while also still working as an attorney?
BG: Yes. My wife, at one time she said we had to think about how far we’re going to go with this thing, because we were throwing everything we had into it. She’s a school teacher, and we’re still sitting in front of our TV every night putting treDCALs together until 11 o’clock at night.
UW: It is literally a mom-and-pop operation!
BG: Truly, truly. The funny thing is that we started at the top and now we’re working down — we’re finally starting to break into the youth market, so that’s increasing our sales.
UW: If you’re doing gear for youth leagues, don’t those have to be NOCSAE-certified, and isn’t that an expensive process?
BG: We go through a manufacturer that’s already NOCSAE-certified. And there’s a lot of leagues out there that, you know, they’re not checking your thigh pads or shin guards anyway. They look really good, though. Have you seen them live yet?
UW: I’ve seen photos, and on TV. But I’ve never attended a game where I’ve seen them, no.
BG: It’s weird, they look so much better live than in pictures. It’s unbelievable. And everyone says that — when you see these things live, they just have like a glow to them.
UW: Obviously, there’s more people watching on TV than there are at the stadium. What can you do to capture that live look?
BG: I don’t know. But they just pop more in real life. But not so much for it to overtake the uniform — that’s not what we’re trying to do. It’s just a nice detail.
UW: You’ve also branched out into other pads and other sports, right?
• • • • •
And speaking of football: The college football season is about to kick off in earnest, which means it’s time for my annual Uni Watch College Football Season Preview. As usual, it’s packed with all the news you need to know about this season’s new uniforms, logos, field designs, and more. You can check it out here. (And the NFL season preview will follow next week.)
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.