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How NFL players stay warm(ish) on frigid fields

In Sports
January 20, 2024

As an 11-year NFL veteran with 16 career postseason appearances, all but two of which took place in outdoor stadiums, San Francisco 49ers safety Logan Ryan has seen teammates try plenty of inventive methods to stay warm in wintertime games.

For instance, Ryan, who won two Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots, recalled seeing Tom Brady don a “tight surfer’s suit that was waterproof and kept all the sweat in” underneath his No. 12 jersey. Ryan has also encountered numerous players who swear by wearing latex gloves under their football gloves so their hands stay extra toasty. “You’ve got to find ways to block heat from coming out while also staying lightweight,” Ryan added.

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But even proper clothing alone often fails to cut it under the chilliest, most blustery elements Mother Nature can muster. “That’s when the Vaseline comes in,” Ryan noted. “It’s really big for closing the pores and blocking the wind from cutting through you.”

It is a common, not to mention comical, sight in locker rooms around the league: dozens of bear-armed – and often bare-armed – players, lining up to lube up every swath of exposed skin before hitting a frigid field. “[Team trainers] will have regular-sized Vaselines, and they’ll grab a big tongue depressor stick or whatever, lather that on with latex gloves, take a group of guys and rub their arms down,” Ryan said. “Or guys will just do it themselves.” Regardless, depending on the severity of the weather, Ryan added, “You’ve definitely got to reapply [at halftime].”

Though virtually synonymous with petroleum jelly as a brand, Vaseline doesn’t have a monopoly on preferred skin care methods in professional football. Among its biggest competition is Warm Skin, a Minneapolis-based outfit with two full-time employees that this season alone has shipped boxes of three-ounce tubes of its skin barrier creams – at a wholesale discount of $156.25 per box, or $6.25 per tube – to more than 10 NFL teams, vice president of sales Aaron Dworsky said.

Contrary to what its name suggests, Warm Skin doesn’t work in the same way as pain relief balms such as Bengay or Icy Hot. Rather, the cream is comparable to a less greasy petroleum jelly, forming what Dworsky called an “invisible blanket” that limits passive water loss through the skin to help prevent irritation, wind burn or, worse, frostbite. “We tell all customers to apply generously to the feet, neck, hands, face – anything that’s exposed,” Dworsky said.

First created as a cream for moisturizing cow udders, according to Dworsky, Warm Skin pivoted to humans in the 1980s and soon after began milking NFL teams for steady commerce. “The Vikings have been using it since the mid-’90s,” said Dworsky, who along with his cousin purchased Warm Skin in May 2021 from its founders. “The Packers and the Lions are repetitive customers, too, buying multiple cases every single year. I don’t get much business from [dome stadium] teams, but they’ll call when they go to Green Bay, New England, Buffalo.”

In other instances, severe wintry weather might force a team to place an emergency order to restock its supply. Such was the case late last week as Dworsky rushed to pack and ship a box of 25 Warm Skin tubes to Kansas City, care of Chiefs athletic trainer David Glover, just in time for the team’s Saturday night home playoff win over the Miami Dolphins in the NFL’s fourth-coldest game ever, when the temperature dropped to minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit (and a minus-27 wind chill) at kickoff.

As Dworsky recalled, “I got an email from [Glover] after that said, ‘I can’t say thank you enough. Got the box this morning, and we are all set for Armageddon wild-card weekend.’”

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Metaphorically and literally smooth

It’s a slithery task, pinning down how and when NFL players started smearing their bodies with semiliquid substances to defend against the wind and cold. But the practice dates back at least four decades, given one local newspaper report of the Bengals’ 27-7 home win over the Chargers in the AFC championship game in 1982 – otherwise known as the “Freezer Bowl” – that quoted trainer Marv Pollins on the amount of Vaseline he had amassed to help Cincinnati players endure the minus-59-degree wind chill: “I had a five-pound can, and it’s all gone.”

Over the years since, accounts abound of players going to unusual lengths in search of the optimal skin care regimen. Gearing up for a playoff game amid a polar vortex in Green Bay in January 2014, then-49ers rookie long snapper Kevin McDermott told the Tennessean about turning to one especially hot method for cold-weather relief during his college days at UCLA: “Our equipment manager had a trick where, if you rubbed cayenne pepper on your skin and then put Warm Skin over it, the cayenne pepper keeps your skin warm.”

As with most aspects of pregame preparation, specific routines vary. Writing for Fox Sports that same month, former linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo described how his teammates Muhsin Muhammad and Brian Urlacher had introduced him to a topical “cocktail” of Warm Skin, Tiger Balm and Vaseline that they applied “pretty much over our entire body.” By comparison, Ayanbadejo continued, Baltimore Ravens legend Terrell Suggs stuck to “heavy amounts of Vaseline” that Suggs had taken upon himself to nickname: LBG, or linebacker grease. “Everyone wanted some LBG before the games,” Ayanbadejo wrote, “even to the point where the refs would make us wipe some of it off because it was seen as a slippery substance.”

Indeed, while players might fancy themselves metaphorically smooth for their concoctions, there is a line at which their literal slickness can run afoul of football law. Three Denver Broncos offensive linemen learned as much in January 1998 when the league fined them $5,000 apiece for slathering on too much petroleum jelly – or, in the case of guard Mark Schlereth, petroleum jelly mixed with the analgesic ointment Flexall – during a playoff game against the Chiefs. The Associated Press called the incident the “great Vaseline caper.”

“[The use of Vaseline] is quite common in the NFL,” Shanahan protested to reporters later, adding: “The question is whether it was excessive use of the Vaseline. … The term ‘excessive’ is the key. Everybody has a different interpretation.”

In reality, enforcement rests not on the definition of “excessive” but on that of another three-syllable adjective: slippery. “There’s no slippery substance permitted on a player’s body regardless of brand or product,” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “If a player has Vaseline or any substance on his skin that is deemed slippery then he would be required to clean the substance off his body so it was no longer judged to be a violation.”

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A ‘good shine’

Throughout his four NFL seasons, former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier always paid close attention to this nebulous concept of relative slipperiness whenever he was suiting up for subfreezing football. “The refs understand that guys are putting all that stuff on, too, so most will check as you’re coming out of the locker room and be like, ‘Nah, you got to go switch because it’s too greasy,’ ” Shazier said. Understandably, then, Shazier wasn’t the type to snitch, even if an oiled-up opponent made it onto the field undetected: “I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey ref, he has too much Vaseline on.’ It’s like, hey, you got to let him rock with it and look shiny.”

A South Florida native, Shazier didn’t learn about the widespread use of such substances until he arrived for his freshman year at Ohio State and saw teammates picking out their desired methods from a veritable skin care buffet. Shazier applied just Vaseline as an added layer of protection beneath his long sleeves before every cold game in college. He discovered a new level of appreciation for the practice when he reached the NFL and learned the Steelers’ vaunted defense, led by veteran stalwarts James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, refused to allow any member to wear sleeves.

“It definitely looks tough when you go sleeveless,” Shazier said. Of course, those unwritten rules declared nothing about skin barrier topicals. “I can’t really think of a guy that didn’t use that type of stuff when it came to going sleeveless,” Shazier said. “Unless you’re from, like, Antarctica.” And yet when Shazier began a tradition during the Steelers’ run to the 2016 AFC championship game of shedding not only sleeves but his whole shirt for pregame warm-ups, he did so fully bare-chested: “I didn’t put Vaseline on my arms until we was getting ready to play,” he said.

As for Ryan, whose top-seeded 49ers host the Packers in Saturday’s NFC divisional round – fortunately with a mid-50s forecast – greasing up under the right (or, rather, the wrong) conditions is a given. “Part of being a professional athlete in football is playing in any weather, so you have to know how to dress and perform,” Ryan said. “This is definitely part of the game.”

Besides, it sure beats other alternatives teammates have tried. “[Former Patriots cornerback] Malcolm Butler hated the cold, so he’d put hand warmers in his pants, in his socks, pretty much anywhere that fit, which was nuts,” Ryan said.

Plus, he added, “A good shine is always good.”

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