Painting helmets turns lifetime Nebraska fan into Utes fan for life

Jan 2, 2023, 11:16 PM

SALT LAKE CITY — The 2022 Rose Bowl held extra significance as the Utes capped off the season, honoring two teammates who both wore number 22.

This year, the team has moved forward together while still taking time to honor the memory of Ty and Aaron. And the way they brought their brothers back to the field was really beautiful.

By the size of the crowd and the sound of the cheers, you’d never expect that what the Utes came running out wearing in this game came out of a backyard shed in Nebraska.

“It’s just me and my wife,” Armando Villareal said.

One-hundred-fifty hand-painted helmets paying tribute to the memories of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, with their portraits on each side.

“Such a tribute for, you know, such a tragedy, and the way that the university and the fans and everybody seemed to love these two that, you know, it was just, it was kind of hard not to do something like that for them,” Villareal said.

Villareal has painted helmets for football teams across the country.

“I’m not even sure how many teams that I’ve painted now,” he said. “I just do the work and I ship it off and it’s no big deal.”

But there’s always been something different about his work for the University of Utah.

“It’s just the way they’ve welcomed us into the school and the university and everything, it’s just been unbelievable,” Villareal said.

The Forever 22 tribute helmets are the third Villareal has painted for the U. The first featured a throwback design, painted to look just as they did in 1966. Each one unique with rusted rivets, scratches, and grass stains from what would have been a full season of use.

“It was a popular one and everything, but I didn’t get a whole lot of recognition,” Villareal said.

The second paid homage to the crew of the USS Salt Lake City.

“That one, that’s the one that really took off,” Villareal said.

It’s the one that solidified his family’s status as Utah fans for life.

“That was just such a huge deal, and they brought us out, you know, to the game, and we got to be on the field and tour the locker room and the practice facilities and be on the sidelines for the beginning of the game,” Villareal said. “And there was just, they let me bring my family. And the way we were welcomed and everything else, it was just, it was unreal that, you know, the university would take the time to acknowledge us like that.”

“It’s just kind of hard not to be fans, you know, when you feel like that much of the family,” Villareal added.

And being a part of the family is what made it impossible to say no to the school’s ambitious idea for this year.

“I told him I couldn’t do it just because it would have been too much, and he was persistent about it. And we went back and forth for a while, and finally, it was like, alright, we’ll do it,” Villareal said. “You know, it’s kind of, it was one of those things, it’s kind of bigger than football, and that’ll probably be the hardest helmet I ever do for a team, that’s for sure.”

“The university sent us some pictures to work with, to put Aaron and Ty on each side and figure out how those would fit. We put the logo on the back, and then we had a lot of blank space,” Villareal added.

“I do get a little bit of creative leeway, you know, to make it actually work on a helmet and kind of fill in some of the gaps and finish the design off,” he said.

“We went to the USS Salt Lake City game the year before and got to experience the moment of loudness, so it just seemed, you know, fitting that we put something to represent that in the background of it, and, you know, kind of bring the fans into it also, and, you know, the tribute that they always have to them.”

“Having Ty and Aaron on your helmet, it just makes it that much easier to go and just dig deep and do everything you can to try and get the W,” Utah quarterback Cam Rising said in a press conference.

“To get to be part of something that’s just so special to so many people, it just doesn’t make sense sometimes because I’m just the guy that does it. But then, when you actually get to get out and be with everybody and then see it on the field, and everybody the way that they react to it, and the players talking about it after the game and just, there’s just, it just seems like a dream. I mean, most artists don’t get to do something like that. So, I’m very, very fortunate that we get to do things like this, and to have such a fan base that has Utah that has treated us so well.”

You can watch much more about the making of this year’s tribute helmets in a new documentary called “Good Enough.”

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Painting helmets turns lifetime Nebraska fan into Utes fan for life