Head cases

BY GENE PHELPS

Daily Journal

BATESVILLE – John Tucker's in the football business, but his season doesn't kick off until November.

His family-owned company, Tucker Manufacturing, has been reconditioning football helmets and shoulder pads since 1946.

“November through August is our busiest time,” said Tucker, whose father, the late John A. Tucker Sr., started the company. “The equipment starts coming in during November. Some want their helmets done right after the season. Others wait until after spring practice.”

Tucker, one of 26 football reconditioning companies in the United States, services more than 20,000 helmets a year for high schools in 15 states, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, along with numerous community colleges and small colleges, including Northwest CC, Millsaps, Alcorn State, Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State, Delta State, Southern Miss, Tulane and Memphis.

Mississippi State head equipment manager Phil Silva has used Tucker's services for 22 seasons.

“I've had a long relationship with them,” Silva said. “I used them when I was at Southeastern Louisiana, before I came to State. They do all of my helmets and recondition our shoulder pads, replacing any of the hardware.

“They do a great job with everything I've asked them to do.”

This season, Mississippi State has switched to white helmets, and Tucker provided the new metallic pearl white color the Bulldogs' headgear will feature when Sylvester Croom makes his coaching debut. Prior to the painting, the helmets were stock white.

Silva estimates that he spends $15,000 per year on getting his team's helmets reconditioned.

At Ole Miss, head equipment manager John Ross said Tucker provides all the reconditioning services the Rebels need.

“We sell our helmets after a good season and buy new ones, so we don't get as many reconditioned,” he said. “But any that we do recondition, we take to Tucker.”

Tucker, working with Ole Miss, designed the navy blue color used on the Rebels' helmets.

“They painted up a lot of them for us to look at,” Ross said. “We wanted a navy to match our jerseys. They came up with a blue with a little light flake to it.

“We bought some new helmets this year, and they were regular blue. We sent them to Tucker to get them painted Ole Miss blue.

“They do a great job.”

Tucker said his company offers teams more than 400 colors to choose from, along with a wide assortment of colored facemasks.

“We used to just have basic colors and gray facemasks,” Tucker said, then laughed, pointing to a maroon candy-colored helmet being worn this season by a Louisiana high school.

The helmets, which arrive in bundle bags from each school, are taken apart – piece by piece – and sanitized. The helmet's shell, without its protective padding and facemask, is then sanded down before being re-painted.

Tucker's son, Joel, a fourth-year medical student, designed an automated painting machine that's “much faster, does a more consistent job, and wastes less paint” than the hand-painting process, John Tucker said.

During every stop in the process, Tucker's inspectors look for cracks and flaws in helmet's shell. The insides of the helmet are also checked for cracks and leaks.

When the painted and polished helmet is re-assembled, they are checked again before being re-certified for meeting national safety standards.

“Sometimes a crack doesn't show up until after a helmet's painted,” Tucker said.

Any helmet that doesn't meet safety standards has to be replaced with a new model.

Tucker also tests a portion of its reconditioned helmets and sends the data to an institute in Knoxville, Tenn., that conducts studies on helmet safety.

“Today's helmets are so much better than they used to be,” Tucker said. “A lot helmets didn't test well when we started in the '70s. The standards are changing. It's an on-going process.”

Tucker tidbits

Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre wears rare Riddell leather jaw pads supplied by Tucker in his helmet. … Tucker does speciality work for the University of Oklahoma Sooners because they stock the school's special Oklahoma Crimson paint. … Tucker's plant takes a two-week vacation the first two weeks of September, just in time for the start of football season. … Tucker also sells new helmets, stocking two of the nation's major brands: Schutt and Adams. … The company's founder, John A. Tucker Sr., died in August 2003. “He never retired,” John Jr. said. … Some of Tucker's older model helmets are on display at the Smithsonian.