With fall now under way, one of the season’s annual rituals is moving into high gear. No, not the changing foliage colors or that autumnal nip in the air—Uni Watch is referring, of course, to college football players being rewarded for big performances with little merit stickers on their helmets.
Although historical details are sketchy, the first team to use merit stickers appears to have been Ohio State, whose head coach Woody Hayes came up with the idea in 1968. Over three decades later, the team’s round stickers, which depict a buckeye tree leaf (not, as is commonly misstated, a buckeye itself, which is a nut, not a leaf), are probably the best-known helmet appliqués, with Florida State’s tomahawk stickers a close second.
Uni Watch has no problem with merit stickers per se but wishes more teams would show at least a modicum of imagination when employing them. The Temple Owls are an instructive case study: Instead of taking the obvious and boring approach of using an owl-based design, their stickers instead depict a diamond—a brilliantly obscure reference to university founder Russell Conwell, who was known for his inspirational “Acres of Diamonds” oratory. At the other end of the spectrum, Uni Watch scorns unimaginative efforts like Louisville’s cardinal sticker, which is just a miniature duplicate of the team’s helmet logo. If this level of aesthetic creativity is any indication, students should avoid the school’s visual arts program at all costs.
Merit stickers have never caught on in the NFL, but there’s a comparable example from baseball: the Pittsburgh Pirates, who in 1979 began sporting gold merit stars on their caps, doled out by team captain Willie Stargell. Stargell used plain store-bought star patches that first season, then designed special “Stargell Stars,” with an S in the center, for 1980. Years after his retirement, he was still handing them out as appreciative gestures. As Baseball Hall of Fame researcher Bill Deane recalls, “Moments before his 1988 induction into the Hall, he affixed gold stars to the staff ribbons of many Hall employees. I still have mine.” All of which shows that it’s the bighearted Stargell himself who deserved the biggest star of all.