When college football’s Oregon Ducks played the Wisconsin Badgers in Monday’s 98th annual Rose Bowl, it wasn’t just a chance for the University of Oregon to claim its first win since 1917. It was also a chance for to make the historic Pasadena game a fashion show, a familiar rite for the Eugene, Ore.–based school. Flashy jersey-and-pants combinations have become de rigueur in the past—the school counts Nike co-founder Phil Knight as its biggest booster—but this week, the team introduced a helmet unseen in Rose Bowl’s century-plus history, one seemingly made of chrome and as shiny as a bumper from a ‘60s muscle car.
Drew Gereb of Newberg, Ore.’s Hydro Graphics, which assisted Nike with the helmet finish, handles the proprietary “LiquidMetal HydroChrome” technology used to produce the material finish on the helmet. Unveiled to the press shortly after Christmas, the new helmet for the Ducks was promoted by Nike as a “futuristic” innovation. But the technique is actually one that dates to the 1970s, Gereb explains.
“The technology was locked up in the automotive industry for years,” Gereb says. “It’s using the old Gravure printing drums. That’s how they did the wood grains on the dashboards.”
The 12-step HydroChrome process is almost entirely performed with or under water, with each football helmet taking approximately seven days to be completed. Hydro Graphics adds a thin layer of translucent material that, once applied, gives the surface of the helmet a bright, mirrorlike appearance. The Ducks’ helmets went through the process twice, with a custom die-cut graphic of the team’s winged logo applied in between.
Besides football helmets, Hydro Graphics produces materials for an eclectic list of clients and applications. The company’s process replicates not only the look of shiny metal but virtually any other material. “One company did paper towel and toilet paper dispensers. They wanted the curb appeal of plastic, but the look of brushed aluminum. So we had a brushed aluminum print made and applied it to the dispensers,” Gereb says. “Another company does the rubber bumpers and trim pieces for hospital beds and gurneys in different types of wood-grain prints. One of our bigger customers makes laser-sighted plastic gun grips with wood-grain prints. I was just contacted by a company that makes slot machines, wondering if the HydroChrome technique would work on their steel panels. Anything we can get adhesion on it will work.”
Poor Gereb has had to suffer as a sports fan for Hydro Graphics to succeed as a business. His alma mater is Oregon State, chief rival to his most recent high-profile client, University of Oregon. And when Texas Christian University introduced a special helmet for its season opener in 2010, Gereb was on the sideline to test how its lizard-skin pattern held up. TCU officials insisted he wear team gear—even though the opponent was, once again, Oregon State.
Still, he’s happy about how an athletics giant, and college football’s most fashion-conscious team, has taken his company along for the ride. Materials have frequently transformed the game of football in its century-plus history, from AstroTurf to cleats to breathable fabric. And helmets themselves have undergone the most continuous change, from leather helmets in the sport’s infancy to single-bar face masks of the midcentury. Nike hasn’t gone without its share of ridicule for Oregon’s continually bold kits over the past decade. But it takes a true innovator to transform the style of the game.