“There’s 24-karat gold in the paint.”
–Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger in the 1993 film “Rudy”
Chris Bacsik, the University of Notre Dame’s first-year head football equipment manager, hasn’t forgotten his roots.
As a student manager for the Irish football program from 1999-2001, Bacsik qualified as one of dozens of managers who helped keep the helmet-painting process and tradition alive on many a late Friday night and even into early Saturday morning.
He’s happy that the process has now progressed to allow him a better night’s sleep on most home football Friday nights. Yet he remains a bit wistful when he recalls the mystique that developed around those helmets and how they were prepared for Notre Dame game days.
“The team would have its walk-thru and as soon as the players went to the pep rally, that’s when the process started,” says Bacsik.
“We would get the helmets at 3:30 or 4, start taking them apart, then use masking tape and Saran Wrap to protect the facemasks. The next set of managers would buff out all the blemishes.
“Then came the whole process of the first coat of gold paint from the helmet manufacturer, then the second coat with a mixture of lacquer with gold dust from the dome.”
Bacsik and his colleagues recall plenty of nights (actually mornings) when the last coat of paint would dry and the final screw went into the last helmet at 6 on Saturday morning.
“Earlier in the year it was not an issue,” says Bacsik. “But it was harder later in the year when it was colder and you could not get the paint to dry.
“If it was September and early October you were out of there by 1 a.m. Then we started bringing in fans into the restrooms and concourse and we’d turn the heaters on by late October. We had anywhere from 50 to 80 managers involved in the entire process.”
Fans today might not appreciate the magic of that helmet-painting process — yet it’s safe to say it become a Notre Dame spectator sport in its own right.
Blame — or maybe credit — Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger for that.
The 1993 release of the movie Rudy — the motivational story of Notre Dame football walk-on Ruettiger — has created a number of popular Irish storylines based on the film’s longevity.
One of those involved what became the ceremonial game week painting of the Notre Dame gold helmets, as Ruettiger (in his early days at Holy Cross College) assisted with that procedure in his effort to find any way to attach himself to the Irish football program.
The movie helped turn the Friday night helmet-painting process into something of a must-see attraction on campus — as visitors clamored for glimpses of the Notre Dame student managers spray-painting the helmets within the Notre Dame Stadium concourses.
“It seemed like a very expensive thing to do,” Angelo Pizzo, the Indiana native who produced Rudy and also wrote Hoosiers, once said.
“It was so unique. There was nothing like it anywhere else in the country.”
The process has changed over the years, but that has never eliminated the national fascination with the gold helmets in general.
Why all the fuss?
First, the Irish historically maintained a somewhat novel yet simple approach to helmet design — much like Notre Dame’s execution of its field layout at Notre Dame Stadium and other elements at that facility.
The plain gold helmets — with no logo or team name on them — matched perfectly with the (mostly) plain navy blue (or white) jerseys and the gold pants that were designed to mirror the helmets when it came to shading.
Exceptions came in 1963 when the Irish helmets featured player numbers on the side and 1959-62 when shamrocks adorned the helmets. There also were several seasons later in the 1960s when head coach Ara Parseghian awarded helmet stars to players based on their play.
During all those years when the helmets were painted on game weeks, the glossy gold tint included a percentage of the same actual gold leaf that covered the golden dome atop the Main Building.
The paint for the helmets for decades was mixed on campus by student managers and featured actual gold dust purchased from the O’Brien Paint Company in South Bend. The dust then was mixed with lacquer and lacquer thinner and applied to the helmet of each player.
That only increased the mysticism surrounding the process.
Former Notre Dame football equipment manager Ryan Grooms laughs when he recalls first coming to Notre Dame and finding that the paint recipe was simply scribbled on a piece of paper in the office. There was no more sophistication than that involved.
“It was a truly overwhelming process,” said Grooms, who came from the University of Minnesota, at that time. “I was blown away the first time I watched it before the spring game in my first season.”
Bacsik during his time as a manager recalls adjustments to make it easier for fans to see what was happening.
“At one point we moved the helmet painting to the north tunnel gate so people could see it happening. The rest of the work was by Gate E, but you got a better view at the tunnel gate.
“For an average game maybe 50 to 75 people would stop by. When USC would come in, there might be 250 people at a time looking through the gates.”
Bacsik grins when he recalls some of the oddball requests from fans.
“Could you paint this quarter?
“Would you paint this shillelagh?
“One time my senior year a guy literally took the bumper off his RV and brought it over.”
And the managers took care of him.
Adds Bacsik, “We would take all our painting supplies to the bowl games and paint the night before the game. And for road games we would have game prep on Thursday nights if we were flying someplace Friday. We would paint the helmets and throw them into separate bags on the plane.”
Despite the weather-related, uneven drying conditions, the real reason the Friday night spectacular disappeared was because the football program began utilizing two sets of helmets for players — one for practices and a separate one for games. Interior helmet pads are switched from the practice helmets to the game version so the feel is the same for the players.
“With the advent of players having both a practice helmet and a game helmet you could paint the game helmets earlier,” says Bacsik.
“I think it was in 2005 that we went to the second set of helmets. So we could start our game prep on Mondays with no practice that day and all the managers available.
“That eliminated the Friday night aspect. Now it was extended over the week — paint Monday, reassemble Tuesday and Wednesday. The helmet process was stretched out over a two- or three-day period.”
Still, by the end of any given season, a Notre Dame helmet had as many as 12 coats of paint on it.
When Grooms came on board, he even ordered special traveling trunks for the helmets (each one holds 30) – to individually protect them and prevent the paint from chipping.
Then came the biggest change in 2011 — debuting for a home night football game against USC.
The Irish football team that night took the field wearing new, brighter, shinier helmets courtesy of Hydro Graphics Inc., an Oregon-based company. The change came based, to a great extent, on Irish head coach Brian Kelly and vice president and James E. Rohr athletic director Jack Swarbrick becoming interested in a more impactful golden color for the Notre Dame headgear.
The tradition of having 23.9 karat gold in the helmet continued. Those same actual gold flakes, collected when the golden dome was re-gilded, were still included in the painting process by Hydro Graphics.
The end result became a gold helmet that was closer to the color of the dome than helmets Notre Dame had worn previously — and provided that color on a consistent basis from week to week and year to year.
Swarbrick had been frustrated with the color of the helmets over previous seasons and charged Grooms with the challenge of getting it right.
There were actually five different shades of gold applied to Notre Dame football helmets during the 2011 season in an attempt to get the color correct. After an exhaustive search and creation process (over 12 different versions), Hydro Graphics delivered the final product Irish fans saw that mid-October Saturday night.
After eliminating other options, the football equipment staff was forced to decide between continuing the tradition of painting helmets and having a subpar helmet or altering the painting process to obtain a superior version. The consensus was that it was more important to get the color correct.
Grooms well remembers watching former Irish star Harrison Smith model the new helmet — and realizing the color this time really did match the dome.
“The shine was the biggest selling point,” said Grooms, who sent Hydro Graphics securely contained bags of gold dust to use in its process. “On a sunny day it looks like we have 115 golden domes running around.”
“The new helmet also was about the texture,” says Bacsik. “The initial helmet sample looked like a trophy — it looked almost like chrome. Then Hydro Graphics worked in the texture so it didn’t look like a mirror. You didn’t want to look like you were wearing an Oscar on the top of your head.”
Student managers have still been involved with the maintenance of the helmets each game week, including inspection, removal of scuff marks and cleaning. But the new paint process was so detailed it could not be duplicated by Notre Dame, so it was impossible to be applied each week.
“Now it’s more of a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday routine, using thin repair strips,” says Bacsik. “In years past we’d just paint it again. With repair strips you have a new helmet for games and another for practice, just a base gray version.”
The 2018 season represents more change, on multiple levels. About half the Irish players will continue to wear the Hydro Graphic version — with an updated color and paint process — while a significant number will now wear a helmet made by Vicis. Grooms left his role as Irish equipment manager (to be replaced by Bacsik) after the Citrus Bowl victory to become the Midwest vice president and sales representative for that Seattle-based company. The Vicis helmet is engineered to both absorb and deflect contact as well or better than any other product on the market. It represents the latest major commitment to Notre Dame player safety.
Says Bacsik, “Last year there were three players who wore the Vicis helmet in games — this year it’s up to 52 players. We will be among the programs with the most players wearing Vicis.
“Vicis has been able to update its shading by working with a new company, Velocity Chrome out of Florida. Hydro Graphics dips the helmets in a vat and pulls them back out and the paint simply adheres to the shell. Velocity Chrome uses a hand-painting, spray-painting process.”
Irish players now have a decision to make on what to wear and why.
“The older guys are more creatures of habit,” says Bacsik. “If you’ve worn one particular style of helmet for seven or eight years since Pop Warner it’s tough to make a switch.
“We tell the freshmen that the Vicis helmet the last two years has been rated the safest helmet by the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association). We highly recommend it.
“Between myself and (Notre Dame director of athletic training and physical therapy) Rob Hunt, we want to keep our guys safe and on the field.
“Each year we receive a list of helmets that won’t be certified the next year by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), the safety governing body for equipment for all sports.
“Obviously, there are more questions now based on the national conversation relative to concussions. We answer lots of questions on junior days with high school kids. ‘What do you wear? What do you think is safe?’ It starts with 13-year-olds in summer camp with their parents.
“By the time our players are here they trust us to keep them safe. The questions generally come from the high school level during recruiting trips.”
Bacsik has great memories of those late nights with his classmates in Notre Dame Stadium. But he’s not ready to go back to that formula.
“This is more routine than before,” he says. “Especially with the number of managers we carry now, it would be very difficult if we went back to painting the helmets. We would need to recruit a lot more people to make it work.
“It was a lot of man hours back in those days. Now, if you have two people and the repair strips, you can repair 50-60 helmets rather quickly — no facemasks off, no buffing the dents in the helmet. Just cover it with strips.
“We now have 20 students who work practice every day. Several of them spend a few hours in an afternoon with the strips and the game helmets are ready to go. It’s really simplified.”
Pizzo, for one, won’t forget that Friday tradition that Bacsik and so many others handled with some version of loving care for those helmets.
And, for Pizzo, it became personal.
“The girl (actress Greta Lind) that we cast to be the person to gatekeeper that particular tradition?
“She turned out to be my wife,” he says.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.