By Brandon OConnorDecember 4, 2019
When the players on the Army West Point football team take the field, they do so for more than themselves.
They represent the U.S. Military Academy and the generations of graduates who make up the Long Gray Line. They play for the U.S. Army and those who have fought and died protecting America. And each week during the season, they play for a division of the Army and the Soldiers currently serving and who have served in it.
For most of the regular season, the division is honored by a patch on the back of the players' helmets, but for the past three years during the Army-Navy Game the Black Knights have honored one of the Army's divisions by wearing an entire uniform telling the division's story.
The new uniform tradition started with a design telling the story of the 82nd Airborne Division. So far, the 10th Mountain Division and 1st Infantry Division have also been honored.
The next honored division is kept secret until the uniform is unveiled in the week before the game kicks off, but the process of designing the uniform for the game is an 18-month collaboration between Nike and West Point's Department of History.
The cycle of divisions is decided three to four years in advance by West Point's Athletic Department, and each design process starts about a year and a half out from the game. This year's uniform hasn't been unveiled yet, but most of the work is already done on 2020's uniform and the process for 2021 will start to ramp up in the near future.
After the division is selected, step one of the process is determining the timeline that will be honored. For the 82nd Airborne it was World War II and for the 1st Infantry Division they highlighted World War I for the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice.
Then, Nike's designer in partnership with the USMA history department starts doing research and crafting the story the uniform will tell.
"It is almost like a method actor preparing for a role," Kristy Lauzonis, senior graphic designer for Nike college football uniforms, said. "I just go as deep as humanly possible with the research. I order books, read everything I can under the sun and then that is when I start hitting the history department back with all kinds of crazy questions."
With help from the Department of History, Lauzonis goes through photos and artifacts of the unit from the chosen timeline and starts working to craft a uniform that will authentically tell the story of the unit. Some elements are predetermined by NCAA rules such as whether the uniform is light or dark depending on if Army is home or away, but everything from colors of elements to fonts are built from scratch in order to make them historically accurate.
On the first uniform, the flag on the players' shoulder may have looked backward to a casual observer, but it was placed the way it was worn in World War II. On the 10th Mountain Uniform, the popular Pando Commando logo wasn't something created by Nike, but was instead a little used logo found during the research process. On last year's uniforms, the Black Lions were to tell the story of the 28th Infantry Regiment and the first major combat for American forces in World War I.
"I think one of the great things about being authentic to history is you will have those moments like where you've done something where it is 100% authentic and people aren't aware of it," Lauzonis said. "That is that bonus element where everyone is saying the flag is backward and we are able to say it pre-existed flag code and this is exactly how it was worn on the uniform and we purposely did it that way. It is not just a company woops we flipped the flag the wrong way. We are never going to do that."
Throughout the entire process, the USMA history department is fact checking elements on the uniform and making sure they accurately represent the division's history and the timeline being depicted. That includes checking colors such as the red used in last year's Big Red One on the helmet and making sure each insignia used is authentic and historically accurate.
"We provide historical context and then of course, the Nike designers are amazing," Steve Waddell, an assistant professor in the Department of History, said. "They've got to kind of translate a historical idea concept to actually make it work on a real uniform and have the color contrasts and everything work ... I'm a World War II historian and we did the 82nd Airborne for the first one. It's just exciting that they're tying the sport of football to military history and military history is always popular."
Along with assisting in the uniform design, the USMA history department helps tell the story of the uniform and the division through the athletic department's microsite, which is created as part of the unveil each year.
There the elements of the uniform are explained, and the story of the division is told in detail.
"The Army's business is people," Capt. Alexander Humes, an instructor in the Department of History, said. "That's why it's also important to tell the story of this unit and the people that were part of this unit and to take this as an opportunity to do that. This presents the Army a great opportunity in something as highly visible as the Army-Navy Game to be able to tell its story to the American public."
This year's uniform will be revealed soon, and like every year Lauzonis said her goal is to make the Soldiers who currently or have served in that unit, whichever it may be, proud.
"I hope that for the folks that are in or have a relationship to the unit, that they feel like their story is being told authentically," she said. "That they feel like they now have something they can wear with pride and that we've done right by them with the storytelling."