While NFL teams are notoriously conservative about their helmet designs, which appeal to tradition rather than outrage, there is a market for zany, over-the-top lids at college football programs that unabashedly use them to attract recruits.
That's why the unique designs of Missouri native Charles Sollars — think bursting colors, school-specific themes and aggressive use of mascots - have attracted a volume of about 1.6 million views on his personal Flickr account, according to Sollars, and have been featured on multiple websites around the Web.
But Sollars, 27, hasn't just caught the attention of college gridiron fanatics on message boards and fan sites. According to the talented designer, three schools have contacted him after finding interest in his designs.
He could not name the schools at their request for anonymity, even if he sounded anxious to let the cat out of the bag about the programs he described as BCS elite. Sollars did say that they all are schools who are considering making a splash with uniforms for a season or special event.
"One [school representative who contacted me] is the associate athletic director," Sollars said. "They are actually in the process of trying to get their proper channels, board of trustees and all of that, to get it approved to be able to be on the field this year. They told me not to say anything until they get a yes or a no."
Sollars said he was inspired by a sneak peek at Mizzou's reported new lids a little more than a month ago. He admitted that he took it as a challenge to improve upon the helmets that already are used by programs and others that have been proposed as upgrades.
A resident of Springfield, Mo., Sollars works in marketing and dabbles in photography for Rivals.com — the perfect combination for someone to take the Internet by storm with dynamic new designs in which he introduced faux Nike Pro Combat helmets much like the fake NFL uniform designs that went viral two years ago.
According to Sollars, one of the interested schools was tipped off to his designs by a former player who is currently in the NFL and remains friends with an equipment manager who eventually circulated the designs through the athletic department. Another school got in touch with Sollars through a direct email from the aforementioned associate AD.
Sollars, speaking matter-of-factly about how things began, described the snowball effect of his designs and their rise to Internet popularity. He said he presented most of his designs only on his Flickr feed at first before sending out to people.
But Sollars said that the genesis of his designs came from his love of sports, art and photography and his belief that he could contribute something of a better visual to the sporting landscape.
"It's one of those things where you take a look at pictures of new helmets and uniforms and say, 'Really? That's what you've spent years working on?'" Sollars said with a laugh. "So I guess I took a look at the supposed unofficial-official Missouri ones on the Internet and said these are ugly.
"I just said to myself, 'This would be cool or this would be cool,' messing with different designs [from ones I saw] and talking to people."
Sollars said that he's not influenced by an affiliation to a certain team; he's not a Missouri fan, even though he grew up close to Columbia, Mo., and admitted that his Mizzou helmet design - a lid with tiger eyes starring right at you — was the product of an idle brainstorm.
A self-described sneaker-head, Sollars also suggested that he wouldn't mind advancing something he began for fun into a profession.
"If Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Under Armour or any of those were like, 'Hey, come up here and see what you can come up with,' I would jump at it," said Sollars, who hinted that he would be open to designing specifically for schools.
"I don't know if any of those has an opening … but you can tell them they can call me at any time during the day."
Sollars again chuckled as he talked about his burgeoning designs, as if he were shocked that this many people have noticed the hobby he started out of boredom.
Who knows? If these helmet concepts get enough publicity, Sollars may one day be doing this for a living.
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