MOBILE, ALA.: The day is finally here for the Kent State football team.
When the GoDaddy.com Bowl kicks off at 9 tonight, the Golden Flashes will take the field proudly wearing bold yellow helmets.
Many teams have followed Oregon’s lead on alternate uniforms and helmets, but few have invested so much sweat in earning a new look.
What began on a whim two years ago has come full circle for the Flashes (11-2) as they take on Arkansas State (9-3) in their first bowl game in 40 years.
Darrell Hazell was only in his second day as coach at Kent State when he stumbled across a gold mine while rummaging around in the Dix Stadium equipment room.
Looking to come to “know everything about everything about the program,” Hazell found an old helmet painted bright yellow with tiny blue shiny flakes.
“As soon I saw it, it was like somebody hit me with a sledgehammer,” said Hazell, who will coach KSU for the final time tonight before moving on full time as the new coach at Purdue.
Equipment manager Cliff Ragin told Hazell the discarded helmet was an experiment gone wrong many years ago.
“It was dusty, had no stickers on it and was sitting in the back corner,” Hazell said. “I picked it up and said, ‘Hmmm, what’s this?’ When I asked Cliff about it and he said they tried a paint experiment awhile back, but no one liked it.”
Suddenly struck with inspiration, Hazell had the helmet cleaned and polished and had another painted just like it. The first one, he put on display in a lighted glass curio cabinet in his office. The other was hung in the Flashes team room above a water fountain for all the players to see.
“It’s been an inspiration to us ever since,” junior defensive lineman Roosevelt Nix said. “It might have been something that seemed far fetched at first, but we bought into it. We saw that helmet every day and worked hard to earn the right to wear it.”
Nix said players had to get used to the bold color.
“At first, we were like, ‘Um, yellow helmets?’ ” he said. “But once we started wearing them in practice and you saw them on film, it was like, ‘Hey, that looks pretty sweet.’ ”
In time, that old, discarded helmet became a symbol of what today’s Flashes were playing for — postseason play, something that hadn’t happened at Kent State since 1972 when the Golden Flashes lost 21-18 to Tampa in the Tangerine Bowl.
“To us, the helmet means achievement and success,” senior kicker Freddy Cortez said. “It’s a symbol of all our hard work paying off. We knew the only way we’d ever get a chance to wear it is if we made it to a bowl game. So we wear it proudly.”
1972 helmet displayed
But the helmet story doesn’t end there. Like many good stories, there’s another layer. About a year after Hazell placed the newly minted “bowl helmet” in his cabinet along with a handful of the championship rings from his many assistant coaching stops, another meaningful helmet joined it.
Hazell was at a gas station near his home in Stow when a woman recognized him and stopped to chat.
“She said, ‘Oh, hey, I was thinking of running by your office, I have something for you,’ ” Hazell recalled.
The woman was the sister of Don Robinson, who played on the last KSU bowl team.
“She told me her brother played on the ’72 bowl team,” Hazell said. “Then she said, ‘I think you should borrow the helmet.’ ”
Hazell signed a note promising to return the helmet. Soon, an older helmet painted blue with gold trim and signed by the ’72 team found a temporary home on a shelf in the curio cabinet just below the future bowl helmet.
“It represents the new and the old, but ultimately, winning football at Kent State,” Hazell said.
The added good-luck charm did the trick. After starting the 2012 season 1-1, the Flashes reeled off an improbable 10-game winning streak that claimed the Mid-American Conference East Division crown, earned a national ranking and a trip to the MAC Championship game to face West Division-winner Northern Illinois.
After the Flashes lost to the Huskies at Detroit’s Ford Field in double overtime, the bowl helmets that awaited them at practice over the next month helped lift the team’s spirits.
As the Golden Flashes take the field tonight, the crowd will be treated to the finished product — special logo decals that were added to the helmets Saturday night as a final surprise to the players while dressing for the biggest game in the program’s history.
Oh, and while Hazell was packing up his belongings in his KSU office before the team left for Mobile last week, one final helmet inspiration hit him. Not only did the coach with a knack for a championship vision return the old ’72 helmet to Robinson, along with it, he sent a thoughtful thank-you gift — a new yellow bowl helmet signed by his 2012 team.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.