04. August 2013 · Comments Off on The Winged Wizard: Russ Hawkins and Capitol Varsity Sports · Categories: 2013 · Tags: , , , , , ,


9 Russ Smiling

It was a roadtrip years in the making.  Finally last month Dr. Sap and I headed down to Capitol Varsity Sports in Oxford, OH to visit shop owner Bob Fawley and winged helmet artist Russ Hawkins.  Uniform gurus probably know that it is Capitol Varsity that has done the bulk of Michigan helmet reconditioning over the past four decades, and it is Hawkins who’s personally created the winged design that you see on many of the helmets each Saturday.  

Of course Bo and equipment manager Jon Falk came from Oxford-based Miami, OH and that’s how the bond between the company and U-M was formed & maintained over the years.   The Wolverine tie is clearly important to the Ohio company–winged helmets, schedule posters and photos of U-M dignitaries are found around the facility.  (And no, despite being an hour from Columbus they don’t do any work for the Buckeyes.  Without saying as much, you can tell there’s some bitterness in the air about that.)   They even have a shrine to U-M and Jon Falk in their offices:

9 Big Jonny

A couple notes: As implied above Capitol Varsity isn’t the only firm that handles the reconditioning of the helmets for Michigan as the Riddell helmets are handled by Riddell in Elyria, OH.  On a disappointing note for me, Capitol Varsity did not perform any reconditioning for this season as the bulk of the helmets on the field are Riddell and U-M decided to go with one firm to handle that process.   Here’s to hoping that’s a temporary supplier adjustment but I don’t have a vote. 

Either way, especially given it’s the 75th anniversary of the winged helmet this season, Sap and I agreed it was critical to get down to Oxford to document the process that’s been such a critical part of U-M history since the Bo era.   And while I’ve interviewed Hawkins over the phone and seen video of his craft, I knew that was no substitute for a couple hours watching it happen in person.  Oh, and of course to allow us to pepper Fawley and Hawkins with nerdy brilliant questions about the process. 

It’s important to note that this process has been honed over the years.  Once Falk asked Capitol Varsity to handle the helmets in the early 1970s it took Hawkins days to figure out how to do it right.  Here’s a blow-by-blow of the process:

GB Gold helmet
New helmet shells ship from the manufacturer (most commonly BIKE in the mid-70s, then Schutt) in the color of ‘Green Bay Gold’


Michigan helmets shipped

Helmets simply requiring reconditioning are shipped from Ann Arbor to Oxford and are stripped to the shell.   The helmets are then sanded to prime the base and to remove any deep scuffs and scratches.




They are then painted the Michigan ‘maize’ shade, according to the color specification dictated by U-M, and set to dry, typically overnight.  NOTE: Hawkins confirmed that the shade has changed over the years – the goal has been to match the wings with the shade of maize in the uniform.  NOTE #2:  Hawkins had a Michigan shirt on the premises and likes the Wolverines (how could he not?).

 9 Michigan Shirt


The wings and stripes are then taped off in four substeps.  First, Hawkins forms the outline of the wings by hand using thin 1/4” tape.   Hawkins prefers to do this by hand in order to keep the wing shape in proper proportion with the size of the helmet.  He bends the winged shape with his thumb.  Worth a second shot:


masking tape

Next, the space inside the outline of the wings is covered with a thick masking tape.



The 3 stripes are laid down using 1” tape, converging at the back



A more recent innovation, Hawkins lays down a small strip of 1/4” tape across the point where the stripes converge on the back to ensure a clean termination point across the three stripes.  Note: If you are still reading this post, congrats, you are a uniform nerd.  Welcome aboard.


full tape

Hawkins then sets the taped helmet in at ventilated station and positions them for painting.


9 Best initial

Hawkins applies two coats of blue paint over the taped helmets and the shells are set to dry.  (NOTE: Hawkins always dons a mask while painting and coating…but he didn’t for this demonstration so we could hear him speak).


tape reveal 1

Before the painted hardens, the masking is stripped off revealing the wings and stripes design.  [While this seems like subtle step,watching the taped up shell tranform almost instantly into the winged helmet is </cough, /choke> breathtaking.]

tape off


final inspection

Hawkins then inspects the helmets and cleans off any noticeable paint spots.  Sap looks on approvingly.


9 Laquer

Finally Hawkins applies two layers of a protective clearcoat and the helmets are set to dry, lined up like pretty maids:

 9 Finished Product - maids

A huge thanks to Bob and Russ for indulging us on this trip.   I can tell you that these men and all the folks at Capitol Varsity take a wild amount of pride in what they do—and that’s reconditioning and outfitting and sports teams with gear. 

Related: Michigan Football Uniform Timeline

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