IMPERIAL, Neb. (ABC4) – When the University of Utah football squad takes the field against Oregon this Saturday, the Utes will be taking a departure from their usual red, white, and black uniforms.

Rather, on Military Appreciation Night, the team will be donning a monochromatic, all-gray look to honor and celebrate the USS Salt Lake City, one of the most decorated battleships to serve in World War II.

While the uniforms, accented by the same striping that adorned the heavy cruiser, will be inspiring enough, the real cherry on top will be the hand-painted helmets featuring a dramatic, air-brushed scene of the ship firing her cannons as she may have looked during one of her many conflicts in the Pacific during the war.

Those helmets, which are sure to shine under the lights at Rice-Eccles Stadium and dazzle an enormous audience on a nationally televised game, were given their highly-creative look by a single artist, Armando Villarreal, from the basement of his home and a studio in a nondescript building on his father’s property in the tiny city of Imperial, Nebraska.

For over a year, Villarreal and his wife Lora, have been working tirelessly, whenever they have time away from their obligations as parents and his full-time job working for the city’s water department, to chip away at bringing the battleship’s image to life by hand on 150 football helmets.

Villarreal, who also has worked on football helmets for the University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh this year, doesn’t even have a guess how long it’s taken to complete the job, but it’s been a work in progress for over a year.

“We do 20 at a time and it was like I’d just get off work and I’d come paint and if I had to watch the kids for a little while or on the weekends, I paint. Every minute we had we’d paint,” Villarreal explains to over the phone. “Some nights you get three done, other night you get 15 done, but they were always in various stages, so it’s kind of hard to keep track.”

Little by little, by painting a base color, masking the outline of the ship, and filling it in with details before a final clear coat, the helmets were done in sets of 20 and sent back to Schutt for the final build until all 150 were done.

While working on Utah’s helmets, which he calls his most “meaningful” – he’s done several hand-painted projects over the years for the helmet manufacturer, Schutt – Villarreal reflected on his own connection to the military as an Army veteran who was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq two decades ago. He also thought of his grandfather, who served in the Navy during World War II and likely knew all about the USS Salt Lake City and its legacy as the most engaged ship of the entire Pacific fleet.

“The military is very near and dear to my heart,” Villarreal says.  “So this has just been a very, very cool project and a very, very close to my heart project.”

Getting a high level of detail and appreciation for the ship’s history throughout the entire uniform was a priority for the Utah football program, as evidenced by an 18-page presentation that was sent to the painter by the team’s equipment director Cody Heidbreder to begin the effort. The image used as the reference for the helmet came from an official Navy photo, with the turret and cannon blasts added to “make it a little more exciting,” Villarreal says.

As a bonus, Villarreal was able to give each piece of headwear his own signature; a small “AV” and a numbering out of 150, can be found in tiny airbrushed letters above the right earhole of the helmet.

At the invitation of the university and its football program, Villarreal and his family will be in attendance at the game this weekend to get a look at the helmets in action. It’ll be his first trip ever to see the Utes in person, although it won’t be his first time having done a helmet for the team. Villarreal also did the Utes’ 1966 throwback helmets in 2019.

“They’ve just really kind of adopted us as being part of the family even though we are from Nebraska,” he says of the equipment staff at Utah, joking that he is bound by law in his home state to be a Cornhuskers fan. “Everybody I’ve worked with at the university has just been amazing.”

When the lights at Rice-Eccles Stadium hit the helmets on Saturday night and create what is sure to draw oohs and awws from scores of sports fans, military lovers, and art appreciators, Villarreal is expecting it to be a surreal moment.

“It’s very humbling and especially a project like this with the military background to it, I don’t even know how to describe it. It doesn’t seem real most of the time,” he says. “It’s my favorite helmet so far, that’s for sure.”