By Jeff White
ATLANTA — As his players sat in the Georgia Dome stands Friday night, waiting for a team photo to be taken on the eve of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, head coach Mike London took a well-wrapped object from a member of UVa’s equipment crew.
“Fellas,” London told his players, “when you come out of the tunnel tomorrow, this is what you’ll be wearing.”
And with that, London removed the object from its covering and thrust his right arm into the air. In his hand was a UVa football helmet.
An orange UVa football helmet. With V-Sabres on the sides.
The unsuspecting players roared with delight, and London smiled. The secret was out: On the final night of 2011, Virginia will wear orange helmets for the first time since 1978. UVa (8-4) meets Auburn (7-5) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Saturday night.
Since the start of the 1994 season, when George Welsh was head coach, UVa has worn blue helmets with V-Sabres on the side. But when the Chick-fil-A Bowl asked the Wahoos to wear orange on New Year’s Eve, London and athletics department officials decided not to limit that color scheme to the jerseys.
And so early this month, the football team’s equipment crew — Matt Althoff, Kyle Riley and Reed Moses — went to work. They stripped the stickers and parts off 112 helmets, including the facemarks, and then shipped the shells to Schutt Reconditioning in Easton, Pa.
Schutt repainted each helmet a shade called Pearl Orange. “They’re going to shine like crazy under these lights,” Althoff, UVa’s director of equipment room operations, said at the Georgia Dome.
The helmets arrived back at UVa around Dec. 15, but London didn’t want his players or most of his staff to know about the color change until the unveiling in Atlanta.
“We hid them in boxes and then packed them on the [equipment] truck once we put them together,” Althoff said. “We put them together under the cover of darkness. It took about three days.”
There was one close call. After a student-manager inadvertently left a door to the McCue Center equipment room cracked one night, senior kicker Robert Randolph walked in on Riley, who was working on an orange helmet.
Riley, the team’s head equipment manager, quickly concocted a cover story.
“Kyle told him we were making another throwback for our collection,” Althoff said, laughing. “Apparently he bought it.”
For a look at UVa helmets through the years, visit http://www.nationalchamps.net/Helmet_Project/.