The untold story behind the Patriots logo
When two or three people tell you the same thing, it tends to get your attention. When two or three dozen people tell you the same thing, well, that's a story worth investigating.
So with the NFL back in business this week, let's consider a story that lots of New England Patriots fans have told Uni Watch over the years. It usually goes something like this: "Hey, I vaguely remember this time when the Pats held a halftime vote to see if they'd replace Pat Patriot with a new logo. They held up signs of the new logo and Pat, and fans voted by booing or applauding. Pat totally won, and the new design was never seen again. Do you remember that? Do you know anything more about it? Do you have a photo of that other logo?"
No, no, and no. Uni Watch has always meant to get to the bottom of this one, but it's one of those things that always ended up on the back burner. Fortunately, reader Trevor Williams was curious enough about it to do some research on his own. He recently turned up two old Boston Globe articles confirming that the halftime logo vote took place in 1979. One of them, published shortly before the vote took place, showed the new logo; the other one reported the results of the voting.
That's right. Fourteen years before Flying Elvis made his debut in 1993, the Patriots were already considering a very similar logo character. Let's call him Proto-Elvis.
Is the similarity between the two designs just a coincidence, or is there more to it than that? Before we try to connect those dots, we have to look at Proto-Elvis' backstory. And to do that, we need to check in with a guy named Micéal Chamberlain, who was the Patriots' marketing director back in 1979. He also happened to be team owner Billy Sullivan's son-in-law. Although Chamberlain is no longer involved with the team (he now runs a real estate company that he founded in 1989), he remembers the Proto-E episode vividly. Here's how he described it in a recent phone interview:
THE FORGOTTEN DESIGN
When you think of Patriots helmet history, you probably think of Pat Patriot and Flying Elvis. But many fans forget that the team once had another helmet design, featuring a tri-cornered hat. A hat on a hat! It was worn only in 1960, the team's first season, back when they were still called the Boston Patriots. The logo was then replaced by Pat Patriot the following year.
As you can probably tell from that photo, Pingree wasn't a professional designer. He was just a Boston fan who was excited about his city's new team, had a burst of inspiration, and sent his idea to team owner Billy Sullivan, who liked it enough to use it. (For additional details, look here and here.)
That's how things worked in those days -- no focus groups, no consultations with Nike or Reebok, no nonsense. Refreshing, right? R.I.P., Walter.
Uni Watch: Whose idea was it to create a new logo?
Micéal Chamberlain: Mine.
UW: And why did you want to do that?
MC: The old one was very difficult to market, because it's a complicated design, so it was hard to get it right.
UW: I never really thought of Pat Patriot as complicated. But now that I think about it, I guess you're right -- there's a lot of detail in the illustration. So you wanted to replace him with something simpler?
MC: My thought was that we should create something new and exciting, and at the same time it would be easier to work with. I worked closely with NFL Properties in California, which was the creative arm of the league. The main person I had to convince was my father-in-law. I eventually got his blessing, but it took a lot of sales work. Between creating and refining the logo and then convincing him, it took three or four years.
Frankly, I was a bit shocked when he went along with it. But he was a marketing and PR guy himself -- those were his roots -- and he had an appreciation for NFL Properties. So when I pitched him the idea, he eventually bought in.
UW: The logo concept you came up with -- who designed that?
MC: NFL Properties created it, and I worked with them to fine-tune it.
UW: And how did the halftime vote come about? Was that your idea?
MC: No! There wasn't supposed to be any vote. After we had done all the fine-tuning, my father-in-law said, "OK, it's good, let's go." But then a month later he announces to me, "Hey, you know what? Let's put it to a test vote with the fans." See, he had changed his mind. And he knew -- he knew -- that that baby wasn't gonna fly with the fans. And then he'd be off the hook.
And what could I do? I knew it was a losing battle at that point. So we went ahead with it, and we had this halftime vote. I was standing right in the owner's box, and it was obvious what was going to happen. I felt like a young lamb going to slaughter. They booed the hell out of that thing.
UW: Now let's fast forward more than a decade, to 1993. Bob Kraft has bought the team, and the Patriots come out with a new helmet logo -- the one that's now commonly called Flying Elvis -- and it looks a lot like the one you tried to introduce back in 1979.
MC: No question about it.
UW: What was your reaction the first time you saw it?
MC: I recognized it right away. The similarities were obvious -- you couldn't miss it.
UW: Was that just a coincidence, or was the 1993 design based on the 1979 design? Like, did they just pull the old design out of a drawer or something?
MC: I have no idea. But NFL Properties certainly had all of the original materials from our project. It was a very strong concept, so maybe they just resurrected it and updated it.
Faaaaascinating. Nobody at NFL Properties remembers anything about this (plus they're a little busy this week, go figure). But the Properties folks didn't design Flying Elvis on their own -- they outsourced the job to California designer named Stan Evenson, so Uni Watch gave him a call.
"NFL Properties did send us a creative brief of materials to refer to, including some designs from that 1979 project," said Evenson. Although the finished Proto-Elvis logo isn't included in that batch of images (it's sort of a hybrid of two of the other designs), it seems likely that it was shown to Evenson at some point.
Ken Loh, the young design intern who executed the initial concept sketch that was developed into the Patriots' Flying Elvis logo, also had a hand in one of the uni-verse's most infamous designs: the Los Angeles Kings' "Burger King" jersey, which debuted in 1996.
But there's no need to get out your pitchforks and make a beeline for Loh's house. He didn't design the uniform -- just the king's head logo. In fact, he created a bunch of variations, most of which were never used. If you want to know more, check out this really great piece about how the Burger King jersey came into being.
So while still in his early 20s, Loh had created two logos used by major-level pro sports teams -- not bad, even if one of them was used in a way he isn't particularly fond of. "I take absolutely no credit for that uniform," he says. "But yes, I contributed to that atrocity."
But there's still another player in this story. Although Evenson oversaw the 1993 project, it was his then-intern, Ken Loh -- just a college student at the time -- who executed the original concept sketch that was ultimately developed into Flying Elvis. You can see the evolution of the design in this slideshow.
Loh runs Oakley's website these days, but he still remembers the details of the Patriots project. "NFL Properties did show us the 1979 logo," he said. "But it was described as something the fans hated, so I tried very hard not to emulate it. You could say my concept was loosely based on that logo, if by 'concept' you mean a profile of a soldier with a flag coming off the back of his head. But I knew I wanted it to be far more streamlined. The concept of a profile/flag is fairly generic and common, and can be interpreted many different ways."
And there you have it: Flying Elvis -- distantly related to, but not the direct offspring of, Proto-Elvis.
Meanwhile, remember Micéal Chamberlain? Imagine how he must have felt. First he brought Proto-Elvis to life back in 1979, only to see him booed into oblivion. Then he left the team and went into another line of work, only to see the team adopt a similar logo years later. Did that make him feel bitter?
"No at all," he said. "Actually, I felt a little bit like I had won something, like I'd finally been vindicated. And at the end of the day, I'm actually glad the new logo didn't happen under my watch, because I will always remember that old logo being part of my father-in-law's life. Looking back, I'm glad I'm not the guy who changed that."
(Special thanks to Trevor Williams for research assistance, and to Tim O'Brien for help with graphics.)
More Gridiron News
NFL teams aren't the only ones gearing up for a new football season. College teams are getting ready too, and lots of them will have new uniforms. As usual, complete coverage of all this will be provided in the annual Uni Watch college football season preview column, currently slated to appear on Aug. 30. If you come across any breaking news on this front, feel free to send it here.
One college football item worth mentioning now involves Boise State's recent move from the WAC to the Mountain West Conference. Turns out the Mountain West brain trust took a dim view of Boise State's penchant for wearing solid-blue uniforms on a blue field, so they've banned that look for conference games. The Boise folks aren't happy about this, presumably because it's going to hurt their recruiting efforts with certain elite players, but Uni Watch suspects they'll get over it.
As you may have seen by now, the Winnipeg Jets -- aka the former Atlanta Thrashers -- have unveiled their new logo set. The full uniforms won't be shown for another few weeks, so it would make sense to wait until then before passing judgment on the logos. But that's no fun, so here are some quick, probably premature reactions:
• The trend these days is to make logos all rough and tough, so the use of a combat jet (as opposed to a normal jet, which was used on the old Jets logo) initially struck Uni Watch as forced and predictable. But it turns out Winnipeg is a big air force town, and that the Jets' new primary logo is based on the Royal Canadian Air Force logo. So the whole thing makes sense, concept-wise. But the overlay of the jet on the maple leaf feels like a mish-mash, and kind of dreary and drab to boot.
• Speaking of the maple leaf: If you look at Canadian football teams' logos and uniforms, you won't see any maple leafs. But if you look at Canadian teams in American sports leagues -- teams like the Blue Jays, the Raptors and now the Jets -- the leaf is often part of the package. It feels like a really lazy visual shorthand geared toward the American market, like they're saying, "Hey, all you Yanks down there, Winnipeg is in Canada! C-A-N-A -- eh, never mind, we'll just slap a maple leaf on our chests so you won't get confused." Kind of sad, really. (And besides, no NHL team should wear a maple leaf except the Maple Leafs.)
• Regarding that script: They're kidding, right?
Anyway, whatever you think of these logos, we should all be able to agree that they're not as good as the ones showcased in Uni Watch's recent "Redesign the Thrashers" contest. But we all knew that was going to be case.
Paul Lukas always enjoys seeing the old Pat Patriot helmet design when the Pats play a throwback game. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.