I got an e-mail the other day from someone informing me of an error in the the Uni Watch Glossary. He said I needed to change the entry for “Pupello Pouch” (which refers to the strap-on hand-warmer pouches worn by NFL players) because the proper term is actually “Pupello Pocket.” And he was in a good position to know, because the guy e-mailing me was the hand-warmer’s inventor, Frank Pupello himself.
As many of you know, Frank devised the pocket during his lengthy stint as the Buccaneers’ equipment manager. But it turns out he also came up with several other innovations I hadn’t been aware of. We discussed all that and more in the following interview, which is lengthy but worth checking out in its entirety — trust me.
Uni Watch: Let’s start with some basics about you. When did you work for the Buccaneers?
Frank Pupello: I was there at the very beginning, in 1976, and I stayed for 21 years. At one point I even started working on a book called 21 Stinkin’ Years. You can take that any way you want.
UW: Had you previously worked for any other NFL team, or in any other sport?
FP: I never worked for another NFL team. But before I was with the Bucs, I was with the University of Tampa. And before that, Jesuit High School, which is in Tampa. I attended high school there, and I tried out for the football team when I was a freshman, but I hurt my knee. So I said to the coach, “I’d like to be with the team, but I can’t play.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you go in the back and see if they need any help.” And as the old saying goes, I’ve been in the back ever since.
UW: So you got your start in the equipment biz while you were still a teen-ager in high school!
FP: Right. And when I was a senior, one day I saw a coach from the University of Tampa — there’s no more football there now, but there was back then. So their coach was watching our practice, and I figured he was taking a look at one of our players. So I went into the equipment room to get something, and he followed me in. Turned out he was there to talk to me. He said, “You want to come to the University of Tampa and do this over there?”
UW: So he recruited you as an equipment manager?!
FP: Yeah. Amazing. So I went over there and did that for two years. But when the Bucs announced they were coming in, the university decided to drop football. So in 1975 I went back to my high school and coached there for a year — I was the assistant defensive backs coach — and meanwhile I was sending résumés to the Bucs, trying to get in there. Eventually their main equipment guy, Pat Marcuccillo, hired me as his assistant.
UW: When did you take over for him?
FP: In 1982. Pat had a little trouble with the front office, and Coach McKay had enough confidence in me to give me the job, instead of bringing in another equipment guy.
UW: And what do you do nowadays?
FP: Since 2000 I’ve been working for Bank of America in Jacksonville.
UW: Wow, that’s a very different world than the NFL. What do you do for them?
FP: Right now, believe it or not, I’m working risk closure. So when someone messes up and screws up something on their account and we have to close it, I’m the guy who closes the account and tells them that we’re doing it.
UW: So you deal with all the fun people.
FP: Yeah, I deal with a lot of people who are very irate.
UW: When you left the Bucs, why didn’t you stay in the sports world?
FP: I had some connections with the Devil Rays, and I was supposed to be a shoo-in for the clubhouse job there. And I stupidly trusted some people who said they’d take care of me, and then that didn’t work out. By that point I was kind of disillusioned with sports. And any other sports job I could have taken probably would have meant moving away from Florida. Plus it was kinda nice to finally have my weekends to myself, be able to watch NASCAR and stuff like that, ’cause I’m a big NASCAR fan. So it was nice to be able to live like a normal person for a change. My wife likes it better this way, too.
UW: Okay, now let’s talk about your signature invention, starting with its name. Is it the Pupello Pouch, or the Pupello Pocket?
FP: It’s the Pupello Pocket.
UW: I’ve often heard “pouch.” Do people often get that wrong?
FP: Sometimes. But the name I came up with, and the name it was marketed under when we were selling it, was the Pupello Pocket. And then the logo on the pocket said “Pupello Design,” which is the company I put together to sell them. We don’t sell ’em anymore, because I can’t get anyone to make ’em.
UW: How and when did you invent it?
FP: When I was working with the Bucs, we always had problems in cold-weather situations. And Coach McKay came to us one day and said, “From now on, I want us to be prepared when we’re playing in cold weather. This bullcrap where we go out there and freeze our asses off, we’re not gonna do that anymore. Frank, I’m puttin’ you in charge of researching this and finding out what we need.”
Now, this was before the days of the NFL making deals with everyone and their mother for equipment. Back then you did everything yourself, you made your own deals, you bought your own jerseys, the whole bit. So I called around, talking to long-underwear companies, ski gear companies, places like that.
UW: When was this?
FP: 1980, more or less. ’79, ’80, ’81 — somewhere in there. So at some point I stumbled upon this company called Zinkwazi — I don’t think they’re even in business anymore. They made some really nice long underwear. We got to talkin’, and I said we needed some head liners, which were sort like hoods. So they did those for us, and they were made out of polypropylene. Real nice. And they were asking what else I needed, and I got to thinking about the quarterbacks. Because when you’re playing a cold-weather game, you’d see quarterbacks like Joe Namath…
UW: They’d have the pockets sewn into the jersey, like a sweatshirt.
FP: Exactly. And I didn’t want to do that. Because we’d been in games where it starts out warm and then it gets cold during the game, so what do you do then? So I thought that if we had something removable, like a muff, that would work. But it had to be geared for football. I wanted nylon on the outside and polypropylene on the inside. I wanted it cuffed, to keep it warm. It had to lay flat. It couldn’t absorb water. And I said, “I don’t want a buckle on it, because I don’t want a player to be tackled by it. I want Velcro, so if a defender grabs it, he’ll end up holding the pocket instead of making the tackle.” And that actually happened one time, where the defensive player ended up with a handful of Pupello Pocket, and our player scored a touchdown.
So I sat down and kinda sketched out what I wanted, and they made me a prototype. And it kind of evolved — I’d say, “Make a little longer, try this, try that,” and they’d keep revising it. A later version had a little pocket on the inside where you could put one of those hot packs. So then we started taking them with us, and people would call: “Where’d you get that, where can I get one,” blah-blah-blah. And of course, some people stole the idea.
UW: You mean other teams?
FP: No, I mean other companies. We tried to get a patent on it, but we couldn’t get the patent because it was too close to a ski muff.
UW: Now, these early ones that Zinkwazi was making for you, did they have your name on them?
FP: No. In fact, they had Zinkwazi’s name on them. After a while they went out of business, so I found someone who’d make them for me in Tampa. We made them on a small scale, but I did sell some to the Eagles, to the Vikings…
UW: So you were willing to share the idea.
FP: Sure. And besides, once teams saw it, they wanted it. And if they couldn’t get it from me, they’d just get a knock-off from some other company. That’s what you see the players wearing now — knock-offs. But they’re not as good as the original one I designed. They’re too heavy, they don’t lay flat, they have buckles instead of Velcro. I’ve seen players tackled by them.
UW: I confess that until you sent me the photos where the “Pupello Design” logo is visible, I didn’t realize it was a branded product. I thought the term “Pupello Pocket” was more of a slang term that covered all hand-warmer pouches.
FP: Nope. It was actually in Zinkwazi’s catalog as the Pupello Pocket.
UW: When was that?
FP: Probably around ’82, ’83.
UW: So just a year or two after you came up with the idea.
FP: Yeah, exactly. And then Zinkwazi went out of business, but I still had a demand for them. Plus, the players kept stealing the damn things! The players and coaches would steal ’em for golf. Hunters loved it, too. One of our players, Scot Brantley, I ended up making him a few in camo for hunting. So I tried every way I could think of to market these things — I tried marketing them to Titleist, companies like that. But it didn’t work out, and by that time the knock-offs were being made in China, so those were cheaper.
UW: Did you ever have any discussions with the NFL, either in terms of striking a deal with them or in terms of them coming to you and saying you couldn’t use unauthorized equipment or anything like that?
FP: I approached them at one point, and they said I’d have to buy a license. So they got real, uh…
FP: Yeah, corporate, that’s a good word. Not the first word I would have used.
UW: But they never tried to make you stop using the pocket.
FP: No. Even after they licensed someone to make knock-offs with the team logos, they didn’t make us use those — we were still able to use mine. A lot of times, you know, we were able to do stuff because we were overlooked.
UW: You could fly under the radar.
FP: We didn’t even have radar. Nobody cared about us. So got away with a lot of stuff.
UW: Like what?
FP: Well, some players had shoe contracts, but they didn’t like the shoes they were contracted to wear. So we’d tape up the shoes, and then I’d draw the shoe on the tape.
UW: You mean you’d draw the swoosh, or whatever?
FP: I mean I’d draw the laces, the holes, everything. Tony Davis had a big contract with Nike — this was before Nike was any good — so he wore Adidas, and we painted ’em to look like Nike.
UW: What about the rest of the uniform? Did you pull any maneuvers there?
FP: After I took over in 1982, I started making the helmet logo bigger, a little bit at a time. Nobody ever noticed. I’d make it a quarter-inch bigger, an eighth-inch bigger. I’d call up the decal company and have them make it bigger.
UW: What was your feeling about Bucco Bruce? Some fans love him, some hate him.
FP: I always liked him. But you know, we never called him that — that was just the media’s term.
UW: What did you call him?
FP: We called the logos “Morgans,” after Morgan the Pirate. So in the old days, we wouldn’t put the logos on the helmets in training camp until the week before the first game, so they wouldn’t get messed up. I’d do the kickers first, then the quarterbacks, the receivers, and then on the very last day I’d do the linemen, because otherwise they’d get all beat up during practice. So as that week went along, it’d be like a little surprise each day to see who got their Morgans on their helmets, and everyone’d be saying, “Hey, are the Morgans in yet?” and “Alright, got my Morgans today!” and all that. There was even a little newspaper item about it one time. But then the league got more commercial and wouldn’t even let you practice without the helmet logos, so that kind of ruined that little ritual I had.
UW: Were you there for the first season of the pewter?
FP: No. When the orange and white left, I left. When they came in with that puke-er color, I left.
UW: So were you happy to see the orange and white throwbacks last season?
FP: Well, it would’ve been nice if I had been invited, or had some input, or maybe got to put the decals on the helmets. Up until that time, I was at every orange and white game the team ever played, and I put the decals on the helmets for every orange and white game ever played. So I kind of broke my streak, which I didn’t like. And they did make a few mistakes, which I could have helped them with.
UW: All throwbacks tend to have some errors. Overall, though, it looked good to see the design back on the field?
FP: I guess. We didn’t get the game up here in Jacksonville. Afterward, I got e-mails from some of the players saying, “Where were you?” And I said, “Nobody told me about it. Nobody invited me.” But that’s the NFL — it stands for no freakin’ loyalty.
UW: Anything else to add regarding the Pupello Pocket?
FP: Well, I wish I could’ve made money on it. Just like the clear facemask, I wish I could’ve made money on that too.
UW: Wait, you invented the clear facemask?
FP: Yes, I did.
UW: Wait a minute, there were clear Lucite masks way back in the 1950s.
FP: Yes, there were Lucite bars. But not the shield, the clear eye shield.
UW: Oh, the visor! You invented that?
FP: Yes. Sports Illustrated even credited it to me. The first one I did was in 1974, for a University of Tampa player who got poked in the eye. I went to a motorcycle shop and got a yellow visor, because we were playing at night, and I rigged it up on his helmet and it worked out pretty good.
UW: Was it positioned pretty much like the visors we see on the field nowadays?
FP: Yes, exactly. Then a couple of years later, when I was with the Bucs, Lee Roy Selmon got poked in the eye, so I came up with two things: First, I came up with a facemask that had two bars by the eye. Now, there was a mask before that, a receiver’s mask that had two bars by the eyes, and that was called the New York Giants Special. But I took it and made it longer, and Schutt called it the Tampa Bay Special. [Here it is being worn by Harvey Martin, who’s posing with the proud designer. — PL]
UW: So you worked with Schutt to design that?
Now, about the visor shield, there is some controversy about whether we were first or whether it was the Vikings.
UW: Yeah, I always thought it was the Vikings myself.
FP: The issue is, I did it for Lee Roy Selmon, but he never wore it in a game. He only wore it in practice. The next time I did it was for Hugh Green in 1984 — he got hurt in a car accident. He wore it in a game, but the debate is who was on the field first — him or the Viking player. It was very close.
UW: But either way, you came up with the innovation prior to that.
UW: What’s the story behind the solid-orange uniforms that you were supposedly going to wear for Sam Wyche’s last game?
FP: The fans had voted on it. The team had a food drive — you were supposed to bring in a canned food item, and they had two barrels set up to receive the food. One barrel had a picture of a uniform with an orange jersey and orange pants, and one had and orange jersey with white pants. So the fans voted by where they deposited the food. And the orange-on-orange won in a landslide. So for that game, we sent the players out for pregame in their white pants, and then we were gonna have ’em change to the orange when they came back after pregame. Then we’d come out in solid orange and blow everyone’s mind. I had the orange pants all laid out in the lockers and everything. And some of the players were all excited about it. But Hardy Nickerson said [affecting bad-ass African American accent], “I ain’t gonna play this game if I gotta wear orange pants with my orange jersey. I don’t like it.” And Coach gave in. So one guy vetoed the whole thing. It was bullcrap. We could’ve been the first ones to wear the solid-color uniforms, which of course everyone does now.
UW: What about the uniform numbers on the white jerseys in 1976 — weren’t they, like, famously hard to read?
FP: Yes. Our white jerseys had orange numerals outlined in red, but the orange was too light — there wasn’t enough contrast, and it didn’t show up right, especially on films. We had to fix it for the following year. So Ron Wolfe [better known as the Packers’ GM, but he was Tampa’s VP of operations in the mid-’70s — PL] decided to have an in-house contest. He invited everyone in the organization to submit ideas for how to solve the problem with the uniform numbers, and then they’d judge which was the best.
So a bunch of people brought in their ideas — secretaries, trainers, all different people. Some of them mocked it up on posterboard, some people made up actual jerseys with heat-transfer numbers or whatever. And there were some really weird things, man — orange number outlined in black, outlined in brown, solid dark-orange numbers. And me. My idea was to reverse the colors.
UW: So instead of orange numbers outlined in red, it would be red numbers outlined in orange.
FP: Correct. But how were they gonna judge the winner? Ron gave me all the entries and said, “Go to the back fence” — which was two football fields away — “and stick ’em up on the fence” So I went over there with some clothespins, stuck ’em on the fence. And when I came back, the only one you could make out and read clearly was mine. So I won. And that’s what we wore the next season. [Frank’s idea to change the number colors was later mentioned in the team’s 1992 program, when the Bucs made their next round of uni changes. — PL]
UW: What did you win?
FP: I think he gave me 50 bucks and a cigar. And I don’t smoke.
UW: Any other changes you were responsible for?
FP: Well, we did change the socks. If you look at the early photos, there were stripes on the socks, to match the sleeves. And a different set of striped socks for the orange jersey. So after the first year, Pat and I sat down and said, “Y’know, we gotta keep changin’ the socks every week, this is a big piece o’ shit. This is too much like work.” And he said, “So what should we do?” And I said, “I dunno, why don’t we just go with orange-topped socks and the hell with it.” And he said, “Good idea — do it.” It was just too much work switchin’ socks back and forth, man. Plus some of the players were tall and some were short, so the stripes never lined up the same way. It looked like crap, man. Looked like a damn seismograph or something. That was no good. So we went with the solid top.
UW: There’s one other thing I wanted to ask you about: You guys had one of the more unusual uniform memorials when you had that “Mr. C” sleeve script for Hugh Culverhouse in 1993.
FP: We had it on the back of the helmet, too.
UW: Really? I didn’t realize that [and have been unable to find a photo of it — PL]. I was always intrigued by it on the sleeve — a very different approach from the usual black armband or initials. Who’s idea was that?
FP: I’m not sure. Maybe Coach McKay. I can’t remember exactly who it was. I do know that my Dad did the script for it, though. He was a graphic artist. He actually did it for the decal on the back of the helmet, and then we sent that to the people who did the jerseys and had them put it on the sleeve.
Actually, you know whose idea it might’ve been? It might’ve been Mr. C’s daughter, Gay Culverhouse. She might’ve been the one who came up with it. Anyway, everyone called him Mr. C. Everyone. He was a good man. I tell you what, I miss him. A good guy. We thought about putting his initials on there but we thought nobody would know what it was for. “Mr. C” just seemed to fit him. He wasn’t a champagne kinda guy. He was more of a “Let’s have a beer” guy. Mr. C.
Phew! Lengthy but worth it, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Frank says he also has videos of some old TV interviews he did back in the day and plans to upload them to YouTube, so here’s hoping he gets around to that soon.
“Capitalist Tool,” indeed: Hey, all you budding journalists out there: Forbes magazine is inviting you to write for them. Just one catch: You’ll be working for free. But hey, it’s worth it for the “exposure,” right? And if your career somehow doesn’t take off as a result, then you’ll have more time left over to paint Tom Sawyer’s fence, so it’s a win-win!
Technical Difficulties: Due to a computer crash last night, I lost a bunch of today’s Ticker material. I was able to reconstruct most of it, but I might have missed a few things, so if you sent in something good yesterday and don’t see it listed below, feel free to re-send it today.
Uni Watch News Ticker: New throwbacks for the Bears, and if you can work up the energy to give a shit then you’re way ahead of me. Let’s face it, any Bears throwback that doesn’t revive this or this is a waste of everyone’s time. … It’s official: The Mets now lead the league in young players with absolute beaks for noses. … Matthew Robins reports that the Mariners have printed up seven different pocket schedules this season, including four in foreign languages! … Southern Miss baseball is wearing a jersey patch to mark the school’s 100th anniversary (with thanks to Jonathon Binet). … Also from Jonathon: Many players in Auburn’s recent A-Day game were wearing the old SEC 75th-anniversary patch, last seen in 2007. … Best broken bat photo ever? It’s certainly in the running. … If you watch this video clip, you’ll see Johnny Damon was wearing white spikes the other night. This wasn’t an all-42s game, so what gives? (As noted by Joe Saputo). … Did you know Heath Bell wears special Marines-style cleats when the Padres wear camo? I didn’t, until Pat Finley pointed me toward this story. Couldn’t find a photo, though. … It would be great if a Uni Watch reader snapped up this old NFL comforter and this Vikings bobble (both spotted by Brinke Guthrie). … New retina-searing alt kit for the Seattle Sounders. … Here’s something I’d never seen before: Babe Ruth in catcher’s gear! That photo ran the other day with this story (big thanks to Dan Cichalski, who treated me to lunch yesterday at the always-wonderful Rutt’s Hut in New Jersey). … The creator of Minnie and Paul — the two guys shaking hands across the river in the Twins’ logo — has passed away. … Everyone can breathe easy: Joe Maddon can wear his hoodie after all. … Statistical oddity: Mike Pelfrey leads the Mets in wins and saves. … Two good US Presswire finds by Doug Summers: First, check out the weird facemask being worn by Ray Brown in this 1977 shot (kinda reminds me of those inflatable jobbies). And dig Alfred Jenkins wearing Pumadidas! … When did the Jets wear this helmet? I don’t recall it at all (good spot by Aaron Bell). … Great Questions of Our Time No. 327 (as posed by Mike Colvin): Exactly why was Mike Laga shown wearing a pink jersey in the 1987 Topps set? Like, did they think the shitty airbrushing job on the cap would distract us from the jersey? … “Zach FitzGerald of the Albany River Rats has a capital G in the middle of his surname,” says Teebz. “The problem is that the River Rats use an NOB style that doesn’t show off this peculiarity. Back when he was with the Manitoba Moose, however, he was able to express himself properly. I’ve never seen another ‘FitzGerald’ like that on a hockey jersey. Do you know of any other athletes that had capital letters in the middle of their surnames?” William VanLandingham comes to mind. Anyone else? … Speaking of NOBs, for well over a decade, the Cardinals have styled their McNOBs as all-uppercase with a space. But Kyle McClellan has a superscript “c” — never seen the Cards use that style before (good spot by David Lee). … Other Cardinals-centric observations from David: Matt Holliday shredded his batting gloves last Thursday; Brendan Ryan has had a swoosh on his sleeve; and someone showed up at Busch with some interesting headgear. … Hey, remember Gary Hogeboom? He was probably never as interesting as he was in that photo, what with the 25th-anniversary patch and the hip-borne uni number (thanks, Phil). … Here’s the ball that will be used for the World Cup Finals (with thanks to Jeremy Brahm). … Contribution of the day, or maybe the year, courtesy of Chad Todd: If all rain delays were a fraction as entertaining as this one, the world would be a far, far better place. Kudos to both teams, and to the video crew that documented the proceedings and produced the clip. Bravo.