USS Salt Lake City Helmet Painter Taps Into Strong Emotional Connection During Project

Nov 17, 2021, 12:32 PM | Updated: 12:45 pm
USS Salt Lake City Helmets...
(Photo courtesy of AV Studios)
(Photo courtesy of AV Studios)

SALT LAKE CITY – Lots hard work and detail goes into designing and painting a regular football helmet but it’s even more so when a helmet has so much meaning behind it like Utah Football’s helmets for this weekend’s game.

That’s what Imperial, Nebraska native Armando Villarreal of AV Studios figured out when he hand-painted 150 helmets for Utah football with the USS Salt Lake City design. The Utes will wear the helmets along with a special uniform to honor the ship that was in World War II on Saturday during Utah’s Military Appreciation Night against Oregon.

In just a small city in southwest Nebraska in the middle of a cornfield and pasture brought a talented artist that was just simply doing his job. After three months of work on the USS Salt Lake City helmets, they are ready to go for Saturday night when the Utes battle the Ducks in primetime at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The fans have shown their excitement to see the helmets and uniforms firsthand on Saturday, but Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd was one of the first to see the design as he was a part of the reveal.

“Gorgeous,” Lloyd said after practice on Tuesday night. “I got to do the reveal and when I first saw them, I was just in shock. The helmets are beautiful, shout out to whoever hand-painted them, they did an amazing job. Just everything that goes along with the designs, having a star and there’s 11 stars on there, just all the intricate details, honors the USS Salt Lake. I think it’s amazing.”

Villarreal spoke to KSLSports.com about this project that has brought so much meaning to him personally.


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How Villarreal Landed The Project

Villarreal is a contractor for Schutt Sports, who is the helmet provider for Utah football. That’s how Villarreal landed the USS Salt Lake City project. This is the second helmet design that he has done for the Utes. The first one was the 1966 throwback helmets that the team wore in 2019.

After Utah Athletics, the Department of Navy and Under Armour worked out a deal to honor the USS Salt Lake City for their Military Appreciation Game, that was when Villarreal was approached with painting the helmets. Villarreal has designed seven helmets for Schutt during his time as a contractor, this helmet that will be used on Saturday will have the most art feel that he has done.

(Photo courtesy of AV Studios)

“I think for Schutt, this is probably my seventh helmet,” said Villarreal. “All the rest of them have been more like graphics and stuff. This is the first helmet that I’ve actually done more of like a fine art feel to it. So it’s definitely more in-depth and more me as an artist for sure.”

Villarreal didn’t really get into the helmet design business until he became a contractor for Schutt. Previously, he designed motorcycles and was licensed by Major League Baseball, NBA, NFL and Muhammad Ali for art. He became a contractor for Schutt after talking to one of their representatives at a retail summit in Las Vegas.

Villarreal’s first helmet design was for Mississippi State in 2018. In 2019, he designed Michigan’s helmets, along with UCF’s moon helmets and the throwbacks for Utah. He was able to design Pitt’s helmets before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This season, Villarreal painted Maryland’s helmets and the USS Salt Lake City lids.

(Photo courtesy of AV Studios)

“Normally, as an artist, if I paint one thing, you could put 50 hours in it or 100 hours in it for one project,” mentioned Villarreal. “I don’t have that luxury with these. So, one of the hardest things is simplifying the design so that I can reproduce it 150 times. There’s four stencils for each ship and I got to put it on and spray it and make them mesh together and then use the airbrush to kind of blend it all together and everything. It worked out pretty well. Probably the biggest thing was how to get so much more detail on these helmets so much faster with this project. They’re not perfect, but for the time we had and the amount we did I think they look pretty good for a football team.”

Military Background

This project brought more meaning than the rest of them for Villarreal, who was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq with the Army. His grandfather was in the Navy during World War II and was a signalman on a ship.

“They went island hopping,” Villarreal said. “They would have served alongside this ship (USS Salt Lake City) in some of the battles and stuff. So it’s not his ship, but it’s probably as close a project as I’ll ever get to, to something that he was part of. The emotional connection to this as just being a soldier and a veteran, and then something that’s so close to what my grandpa would have done. Even before any of this as to the magnitude of this game, or anything. “Of any project I’ve ever done, this is this has a strong emotional connection to me just because of that. So it’s an extreme honor to even get to be part of this project.

(Photo provided by Armando Villarreal)

It’s impressive how a contractor in a small city in Nebraska, who has only painted one helmet for Utah before this one, was on a project that is so near and dear to his heart.

(Photo provided by Armando Villarreal)

First Experience At Rice-Eccles Stadium

With Villarreal spending so much time on this project, he decided to take his family with him to Rice-Eccles Stadium to see the helmets he painted in action.

“Every spare minute I’ve been working on helmets,” said Villarreal. “So we’re kind of taking a couple extra days and bringing the kids and making a little vacation of it as well as for them to experience this too and kind of see why I work so much and be on the field and see this in real life. They’re excited, I’m excited.”

Villarreal and his family will be at Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first time ever on Saturday. It’s perfect timing for him because he is starting to realize how big this game is.

“I’m kind of figuring it out,” Villarreal stated. “Just seeing the build up for this game. My oldest boy, we took him to a football game once and my middle kid has never been to a college football game. I’m just gonna apologize to him now and tell him it’s all downhill from here. It’s not gonna get any better than this.”

Doing this project has made him a Utah fan for sure, even though he lives in Cornhuskers country. When you put so much time and effort into a project like this, especially while also working a full

So we really started following Utah football after doing the throwback helmets,” Villarreal said. “That was a neat idea. I commend Cody (Heidbreder, equipment director) for that, that was all him. I do a lot of contract work and projects. I get it done and the job’s done, and Cody’s just kind of embraced me and it’s just different with this one. The more we work together after this is kind of like family. It’s hard not to become a fan. I’ve started following some of the Utah fan groups, Utah football, Utah equipment, the MUSS, all that kind of stuff.”

Utah will face Oregon on Saturday, November 20 at 5:30 p.m. MT. The game will be televised on ABC.

Trevor Allen is a Utah Utes Insider for KSLSports.com, Co-Host of Faith, Family and Football podcast with Clark Phillips III and host of the Crimson Corner podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorASports.

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