Letting Their Hair Down: NFL Lets Loose with Leonine Manes
Gimme head with hair,
Long, beautiful hair.
Streaming, flaxen, waxen.
Give me down to there hair,
Shoulder length or longer.
- Lyrics from the musical, "Hair"
Hair is where it’s at if you want to stand out in the NFL.
From Troy Polamalu’s thick mass of curls to Domata Peko’s fluffy, lionlike mane to Chris Johnson’s dreads to Clay Matthews’ grunge look, players all over the NFL are going long.
Coaches, too. This means you, Rob Ryan.
"I see around the league a lot of guys are growing the hair out, not only Samoans but dudes with blond hair and dreadlocks and stuff like that," said Peko, the Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle whose hair reaches all the way down to his waist. "It’s pretty cool. It’s good to see."
It wasn’t so long ago that there were only a handful of long hairs in the league, and just one or two with truly eye-catching ’dos. When Larry Johnson yanked Polamalu down by his hair in 2006 on a 49-yard interception return, it set off a buzz about whether hair pulling was legal. It is. The NFL considers hair part of the uniform.
Now cascading tresses - tamed, braided and otherwise - are everywhere.
Nearly every team has at least one player with hair long enough to obscure his name on the back of the uniform. The Arizona Cardinals are the unofficial league leader in hirsuteness, with eight. (It was nine, but receiver Steve Breaston shaved his head this week.) Even New England’s Tom Brady, he of chiseled good looks, is hip to long-is-better, though some have questioned the wisdom of his Justin Bieber-esque shag.
In fact, so many players have grown their hair that fans could have an All-Hair fantasy team.
"I think that football players have really started to want to their own identity on the field. I mean who can tell who is who with all those bulky helmets on?" said Michael Shaun Corby, a celebrity hair stylist and global creative director for Alterna Professional Haircare.
"People have looked up to these guys since they were young teenagers," Corby added. "Now I think they are just taking that superstar persona to the next level and giving themselves a unique and more trend-conscious style."
The reasons are as varied as the looks.
Some, like Peko and Polamalu, do it because it’s part of their culture. Peko is from American Samoa, where long hair is the norm for men, and Polamalu also has Samoan roots.
"If you have short hair out there, people are like, ’What’s up, dude? Why aren’t you growing your hair?’" said Peko, who has been growing his hair since he was a kid.
Some, like Miami Dolphins cornerback Benny Sapp, do it as a nod to what’s fashionable in their hometown (Fort Lauderdale). Others are looking for low-maintenance style.
"I just get up, shake it and I’m out the door," said Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, who’s been growing his hair since 2005. "That’s what I like about it. I’m good to go."
And some guys simply like the look.
"We were playing the University of Miami and I just saw the way they looked. ... They were shaking their hair and I was like, ’That looks good.’ And then when they put their helmets on, it looked great coming out of the back of their helmets," said Dallas Cowboys receiver Jesse Holley, whose dreadlocks now reach down to the middle of his back.
"It makes me feel like I’m running fast," Holley added. "When I have my hair out, I feel like a lion. It puts you in that wild, warrior-type mentality."
Despite all that hair flying around, it’s rare for a player to be brought down when someone grabs a handful of it. Make no mistake, however. There’s still enough hair pulling and twisting on the field to rival the kindergarten set.
Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Ed Wang, who recently trimmed his waist-length hair to the middle of his back, said his hair would get pulled "on every play" when it was longer - and that was in practice, by his own teammates. After Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl kick returner Joshua Cribbs was pulled down by his hair, possibly saving a touchdown, Cribbs now trims his hair so opponents can’t get a good grip on it. And Holley and Johnson said they’ve had individual dreadlocks yanked out.
"After the game, I’m walking off the field and I’ll look down at the ground and see a piece of my hair," said Johnson, the 2009 Associated Press NFL Offensive Player of the Year. "It’s like, ’Hey, when did that come out?’"
While it may seem strange to see all this long hair alongside close-cropped guys such as Brian Urlacher, Chad Ochocinco and Matt Hasselbeck, no one’s been ordered to cut it off. It’s what’s cool now, much like the wildcat offense, and coaches have learned to adapt.
"It’s a part of our culture now. I’m used to it," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "If I could grow my hair that long I’d consider it."
Besides, fans love it. Polamalu’s ’do is so famous it has its own website, and Head & Shoulders has insured his hair for $1 million. There are Facebook pages devoted just to Matthews’ and Peko’s hair. Kids all over Cleveland donned dreadlock wigs and went as Cribbs for Halloween.
After the Steelers-Bengals game Monday night, someone combed through the footage and posted a series of clips of the one play where Peko, in a rare appearance as a fullback, lined up against Polamalu, calling it, "When Two Great Heads Of Hair Meet, Only One Can Survive." Peko flattened Polamalu on the play, helping clear the way for a Bengals touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 27-21 win - a hair-raising play that would have impressed Vince Lombardi AND Vidal Sassoon.
"I’m walking around the stores or eating dinner, and people just come up to me and say, ’Dude, can I touch your hair?’ " Peko said. "That’s pretty funny."
AP Sports Writers Howard Ulman, Joseph White, Dave Ginsburg, Dennis Waszak Jr., Alan Robinson, Mike Cranston, Steve Wine, Fred Goodall, Teresa M. Walker, Brett Martel, Paul Newberry, Joe Kay, Tom Withers, Larry Lage, Mike Marot, Chris Jenkins, Jon Krawczynski, Doug Tucker, Jaime Aron, Arnie Stapleton, Bob Baum, Tim Booth, Janie McCauley and Josh Dubow, Associated Press Writer Schuyler Dixon and AP freelancer Bob Matuszak contributed to this report.