It wasn’t until his junior yr of school, in 2015, that Aaron Jones decided to rebel and form his hair into dreadlocks.
He said his parents, Alvin and Vurgess Jones, had warned him that Black people had long been targeted for discrimination, ostracism or punishment in class and the workplace for wearing their natural hair texture.
But as Jones matured, his parents’ stance softened, and Jones, the star running back for the Green Bay Packers, has now grown his dreadlocks for eight years in order that they reach his collarbone, the guidelines of the barreling twists dyed a dark blond. Through the N.F.L. season, he visits a stylist once every three months to re-twist them, he said, and he moisturizes his hair each day at home.
“I just think your hair is a component of your strength, and I like the way in which it looks on me,” Jones said in a phone interview. “You simply have to specific yourself and do you.”
Dreadlocks are nothing recent in football, where 58 percent of the league’s players are Black and roughly 18 percent of players on energetic N.F.L. rosters — or nearly one in five players on every club — wear their hair dreadlocked or braided, in accordance with a casual tally compiled from roster headshots from all 32 teams.
But N.F.L. athletes’ personal style is constrained by uniform policies which might be more strict than those in other pro leagues. Players spend most of their games with their faces covered by helmets, in order that they are aware that their hairstyles are an efficient technique to showcase their individuality on game days, at red carpet events and on their social media pages.
Lengths vary. Some players keep their twists short or tie them back. Others allow their hair to flow in order that it seeps out of their helmets.
“You might have guys with quite a lot of nationalities and personalities within the league and everybody wants to specific themselves,” said Asante Samuel Jr., a second-year Chargers cornerback who has been growing his dreadlocks for about 4 years. “It’s just one other way for guys to be themselves.”
Other dreadlocked players said their selection of fashion carries significance beyond just looks. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, whose dreadlocks reach near his collar, said he initially began growing them in 2018 for the aesthetic. However the hairstyle became more meaningful, he said, as he learned about its history and its influence on the Black community.
“It’s just Black culture, truthfully,” said Warner, who identifies as Afro-Latino and American. “It’s just African American culture and what it means to us as Black people since it’s something mostly unique to us given our hair texture.
“I do take quite a lot of pride in it,” he added.
The previous Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the previous Rams running back Steven Jackson were among the many first big-name players to proudly wear hair so long that it partially covered the backs of their jerseys. They did so because the style’s popularity increased within the early aughts, confounding the league’s rule makers.
In 2003, after the previous Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams was pulled down by his dreadlocks in a game, the N.F.L. ruled that hair was a part of a player’s uniform and subsequently legal to grab in pursuit of a tackle.
“I’ve been pulled by my hair just a few times,” Jadeveon Clowney, then a linebacker with the Houston Texans, said after grabbing the locks of former Buffalo Bills running back Chris Ivory in a 2018 game. “But, hey, in the event that they’re an element of the uniform and if I could reach for them again I might.”
Defensive players account for about 60 percent of players with dreadlocks or braids. They’re rarely tackled unless they secure an interception or fumble.
“I’m not too anxious about it, Warner said. “In the event that they’re pulling my hair, which means I probably did something right and have the ball in my hands.”
Primary ball carriers who wear dreadlocks know the risks. Last season against the 49ers, Jones said, cornerback Josh Norman plucked partial strands of his hair out while attempting a tackle. Jones said the pulling didn’t hurt but as he jogged back to the huddle, he saw Norman with the twists in his raised hand.
“It was like he was celebrating,” Jones said, chuckling. “That was a primary.”
Jones said he retrieved the hair from Norman and put it inside his sock for the remainder of the drive. On the sideline, he gave it to equipment staff for safekeeping so he could later have it reattached.
Miami Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill dreadlocked his hair after he was drafted in 2016. His locks don’t yet extend past his helmet, but he doesn’t worry concerning the day they do.
“I rarely get tackled,” said Hill, one in every of the fastest players within the league. “I can’t really see myself being in a situation like that.”
Other players take measures to contain their locks. On game days, many wear a skull cap or headband under their helmets to tie them back, which also helps stop sweat and oil from dripping down their face.
Previously, Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry had his dreadlocks woven right into a tightly knit fishtail braid that stretched just past his shoulder pads. Rams defensive back Jalen Ramsey, whose hair reaches his cheeks, has often worn a balaclava, a mask that wraps an individual’s entire head, leaving only a gap for the eyes.
Keeping dreads neat contained in the helmet can prevent opportunities for hair-pulling tackles and in addition make the player more comfortable. But it will possibly also pose a challenge to fitting those helmets to offer their intended head protection.
The N.F.L. has invested over $200 million over the past decade in helmet and concussion research, including a $2 million grant competition to create a recent “top performing helmet.” Jeff Miller, the N.F.L.’s executive vp of communications, public affairs and policy, said in a press release that 67 percent of all players within the league this season are wearing helmets that snugly fit their head’s specific measurements.
Riddell, one in every of the leading helmet manufacturers, began producing models with “precision-fit” technology in 2017. To be fitted, players wear patterned hoods that are recognized as team equipment managers scan their heads using a cellphone app. Those images are sent to Riddell, which provides the players with a helmet with customized padding inside 4 weeks of receiving their data.
“What player doesn’t desire a helmet that matches them perfectly and has their name stitched into the liner?” said Thad Ide, the senior vp of research and product development at Riddell.
But few “precision-fit” models allow for quick large-scale adjustments, Ide said, and if a player drastically changes his hairstyle through the season, he might need a recent helmet. Brendan Burger, the Rams’ equipment director, said he all the time advises players to wear their hair exactly as they’d in a game through the fitting process. Otherwise, the helmet might not be as comfortable or offer the most effective protection.
“That’s the important thing for me,” Burger said of dreadlocked players. “In the event you don’t, or you only allow them to hang down or whatever it might be, then it’s going to be a very different fit.”
But that’s a small matter to players trying to be anything but uniform of their appearance. And people appearances might not be everlasting. Warner said he expects to maintain his dreadlocks for a very long time. However the length may change. He barely trimmed them this off-season, he said, on the request of Sydney Hightower, his wife.
“They were getting a bit bit too long for her liking,” Warner said, laughing.