By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 12:35 AM
Super Bowl XLV may or may not be the best, gaudiest, highest-scoring, most-watched or most-concussive Super Bowl in history. But one superlative will almost certainly apply: It's going to be the hairiest.
An era of increasing hirsuteness in the National Football League will reach its apex next Sunday, when two of the most celebrated - and least-shorn - teams in league history, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, meet at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex. If the NFL had any understanding of the zeitgeist, it would get Fabio to sing the national anthem.
These are two teams that excel at mane-to-mane defense. On one side of the field: the Steelers, led by their wild, crinkly-haired safety (and Head and Shoulders pitchman) Troy Polamalu. If you need to look up the spelling of his last name, it's because it is rarely visible on the back of his jersey, covered up by silky strands of his famed (and famously insured, for $1 million) locks.
On the opposite side, the Packers, with their twin Rapunzelesque linebackers, Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk, plus a handful of less-celebrated (but no less-scissors-averse) teammates. By virtue of his talent (he is a leading candidate for the NFL's defensive player of the year), if not his tresses, Matthews is the telegenic front man for this hair band, and last week he signed an endorsement deal with Suave, allowing him to join Polamalu in breaking from the hairy pack and making his 'do a part of the popular culture.
"That's the next step, right there," Matthews said before the Suave deal was announced. "Obviously, you've got to perform on the field in order to get those types of endorsements, and hopefully I'm taking a step in the right direction."
The long-hair trend that has been spreading throughout the NFL for the last 15 to 20 years is by some accounts traceable to 1990s sack specialist Kevin Greene - now, perhaps not coincidentally, the Packers' outside linebackers coach - with his long, flowing locks that looked more at home in a pro wrestling ring (where he also dabbled for a time) than on a football field.
In the early 2000s, running back Ricky Williams helped popularize the dreadlocked look and led the NFL to clarify a rule (known informally as "the Ricky Rule"), stating that players with hair that spills out of their helmets can be tackled by it.
It's an effective - if painful - way of bringing a ballcarrier to the ground, as Polamalu himself experienced in 2006 against the Kansas City Chiefs. In a play immortalized on YouTube (search "Polamalu tackled by hair") , Polamalu intercepted a pass and was galloping down the sideline toward the end zone when the Chiefs' Larry Johnson leaped in the air, grabbed him by his hair and yanked him to the ground.
"I mean, the dude had hair. What do you want me to do?" Johnson said after the game. "When I grabbed him, that's the only thing I could get my hands on."
"It didn't hurt," Polamalu claimed at the time. "It felt good."
The influx of Samoan players (including Polamalu, who, though a California native, is of Samoan descent) brought with it yet another take on beyond-the-helmet hair: the wild, warrior look that is a cherished part of Samoan culture.
By this season, there were literally hundreds of players sporting long hair , including a couple of teams with 10 or more would-be Samsons.
"When I have my hair out," Jesse Holley, the Dallas Cowboys' dreadlocked wide receiver, told reporters, "I feel like a lion. It puts you in that wild, warrior-type mentality."
It got to the point this season where even New England Patriots quarterback/pretty boy Tom Brady was famously wearing his hair at nearly shoulder-length (you can see it on the cover of this month's GQ magazine) - which, of course, means we are officially one Manning brother away from this whole long-haired thing jumping the shark.
"If you look around you, there are a lot of people walking around out there with long hair and beards," said Paul Lukas, who writes an ESPN column on sports uniforms and a blog called "Uni Watch." "So in that way, football is mimicking society."
It isn't difficult to figure out the primary reason behind the hair trend. According to people both inside and outside the game, it is because the NFL has steadily outlawed most other forms of on-field personal expression - from excessive sack dances to theatrical touchdown celebrations to distinctive socks, wristbands and bandannas - leaving style-conscious players few other outlets.
"Hair and tattoos," said Heather Zeller, who blogs at www.aglamslam.com ("Where Fashion Hits Sports"), "are the last forms of on-field personal expression in the NFL."
It was the NFL's crackdown on personal expression that earned it the derisive nickname "No Fun League" from critics, some of whom are now applauding the long-hair trend as a subversive end-around to circumvent the style police.
"The NFL has basically taken every [form of personal expression] away from the players," said Brian Mitchell, the ex-Redskins running back and return specialist. "The one way you can truly express yourself is your hair. You shave it. You cut it a certain way. You let it hang out."
Mitchell wore his head shaved for much of this career - going back, he said, to the Redskins' 1996 training camp, when Mitchell and a dozen or so teammates decided to go bald as a show of unity - and retains the smooth-domed look to this day.
The league "won't let you wear anything but the basic uniform," Mitchell said. "You can't do this or that. But they can't tell you what do with your hair."
Actually, the NFL almost did try to legislate long hair out of the game. In March 2008, the league's competition committee mulled over a proposal to ban hair that obscures the players' nameplate on the back of the uniform. The committee voted down the rule change.
But there may be a bigger, more universal reason behind the long-hair trend. As with most other forms of expression - not only in sports, but in the arts and in popular culture - everything has already been tried. If it hasn't been banned, it's been done a million times.
To get noticed, you have to be bolder, crazier, more outrageous.
Take tattoos. They were already gaining traction in the National Basketball Association, where players have more skin showing than in other sports, before Dennis Rodman raised the bar in the late 1990s with his full-body tats paired with various piercings and brightly colored hair.
Nowadays, some 15-man NBA rosters are sporting 30 arms' worth of inked tribal symbols, dragons, Bible verses and portraits of mama - which means it takes something truly outrageous to stand out.
That's where Chris "Birdman" Anderson, forward/center for the Denver Nuggets, comes in. Already covered practically shoulders-to-feet in tattoos (most of them bird themed - wings, talons, etc.), Anderson dialed it up to a new level this season, showing up with a gaudy, brightly colored tattoo across his entire neck, reading "FREEBIRD."
Oh, and with his hair in a mohawk.
"Being free. Can't nothing hold me down," Anderson said, when asked what the latest tattoo symbolized. "I'm always going to fight to be free. That's what led to the Freebird."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Anderson approves wholeheartedly of the Polamalu/Matthews long-haired look in the NFL. "I dig their style, man," he said. "I like anybody with style. That's like saying they have class."
That's the thing about hair: Whether you're a tattoo-wearing NBA maniac, a hard-hitting defender getting ready to play in the Super Bowl, or just another schlub kicking back to watch the big game on TV - it grows on you.
Michael Lee contributed to this report.