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How Patriots led push to change NFL rule and bring red throwback uniform back

The New England Patriots on Wednesday unveiled their classic alternates, but it was years in the making.

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Old trends tend to come back in style if you stick around long enough. Just ask Andre Tippett.

The Pro Football Hall of Famer transitioned to the administrative side of things after his retirement from the New England Patriots, but the current Director of Community Relations still loves seeing a red jersey with his No. 56 sprinkled amid a sea of navy and white on game days at Gillette Stadium.

With the red throwback uniforms officially back in the Patriots' closet 30 years after Tippett wore it regularly, that pop of color is about to become more prevalent this upcoming season.

"There's nothing like the old throwback jerseys," Tippet said. "I'd love to see more people representing old-school football."

The Patriots uniforms didn't change significantly through the first three-plus decades of the franchise's existence, but even after the switch to a short-lived royal blue that preceded the navy and silver of the 2000s, the red throwback jerseys didn't disappear entirely.

New England brought them out as alternates sporadically between 1994 and 2012, with a winning 9-3 record in those games. But to the disappointment of many, a 2013 rule change imposed by the NFL to improve player safety mandated that every club stick to one helmet.

The idea was that a worn-in helmet was safer to play in, as the concussion epidemic became a growing concern across the league. It didn't feel right to blend the red throwback jerseys with a silver helmet and the modern-day logo, so the alternate was taken out of the Patriots' rotation for the meantime.

Behind the scenes, though, New England led the charge to change the rule while maintaining player safety.

"There was a sort of understanding here that, no, we're not going to wear the silver helmets with the red throwbacks, right? That would be a different alternate uniform," Ali Towle, Vice President of Customer Marketing & Brand for Kraft Sports + Entertainment, said.

"We wanted to stay pure to that original throwback, and so that's why we waited and kept lobbying the league to change it back. We fought the good fight."

The New England Patriots unveiled new throwback alternate uniforms to be worn on select games during the 2022 NFL season. Check out photos of Patriots players Kendrick Bourne, David Andrews, Matthew Judon & Matthew Slater wearing the new jerseys, pants and helmet for the first time, and take a close up look at the details, which feature a red jersey with white and blue shoulder stripes, white pants with red and blue stripes and a white helmet with the Pat Patriot logo.

Towle came to work with the Patriots, her hometown team, after six years on the west coast with the San Francisco 49ers in 2016.

She was partial to the vintage aesthetic of the Pat Patriot logo, loved the classic design of the red jerseys, and knew she was not alone among fans.

"We hadn't changed the uniform in a long time," Towle said. "I was always pushing to try and get the throwbacks back. What's old is new again – that's why we're wearing 90s styles right now. It's fun. Nostalgic. The red pops."

Towle had a contact at the NFL who not only was in a position to help her change the rule, but who had a vested interest himself.

Jonathan Wright joined the NFL in 2014 as the Senior Director of Uniforms & On-Field Products – one year after the rule was changed.

By 2016, he knew enough about the inner workings between the league and its clubs with all uniform changes crossing his desk. Being a lifelong Patriots fan from Sharon, Mass., he also knew how much fans yearned to see the red throwbacks return.

"I started to kind of ask the questions around, how can we make this work?" Wright recalled.

"Once we formulated the plan, putting it into action certainly it took a while, you know, making sure that at the end of the day, Player Health and Safety still led the charge. But knowing that the teams really wanted this back, the fans certainly want it, the players certainly want it, I think it's going to be a pretty cool re-addition to the field."

For the entirety of his professional life, Wright has been doing something involving uniforms.

He started a business with his college roommate that specialized in dealing game-worn hockey jerseys and vintage Bruins apparel, which eventually he parlayed into positions with Reebok and Adidas before taking a job with the NFL.

"I'm a uniform geek, what am I going to say," Wright said. "It's a weird little niche that I've fallen into but I love it."

Even with that extensive experience, he didn't anticipate how many small-detail decisions would have to be made.

There were various iterations of red jerseys worn by the Patriots from the early 1960s through 1992, but the throwback design known today was based on the uniform worn from 1984 until 1992: timeless blue and white stripes across the red sleeves, with bold white numbers outlined in blue and a crisp white pant.

"It was a labor of love, for sure," Wright said of trying to balance the fine line between keeping things historically accurate while making the design work with today's uniform and helmet technology. "This whole thing was my project."

The helmet raised more questions, though. According to the NFL, a white face mask was replaced by a red face mask in 1991, and the size of the Pat Patriot logo on the helmet had been subject to change over the years.

"There are fans out there that are total uniform hawks," Towle said from experience. "People notice."

Ultimately, the white face mask won out in a poll that included participation from Tippett, partly due to the team having more success with that helmet. Towle also thought it looked cleaner.

The actual rule change would take a few years. Towle would hear that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was finally coming around to the idea, but a vote kept getting put off.

In June of 2021, a memo was sent to clubs by the league to finally announce the approval of a second helmet for the following season.

For most teams, there will be hoops to jump through dealing with Nike and the league to create a new alternate. Since the Patriots already had the jersey designed and approved, they'll be one of the first teams to wear their alternate option this season.

"There are teams and fans that are clamoring to have something come back, and there are also markets that really try to push the boundaries," Wright said. "For years, the Patriots fans and club have really wanted Pat to come back for a long time. I'm personally proud of being a part of making that happen."

It makes sense that the team based in New England would want to hold on to its rich history.

Even the color rush uniform, that then inspired the new regulars unveiled in 2020, was reminiscent of the old throwback with a new color scheme and updated font. Now, the red is back, thanks to a lot of effort from everyone involved. Maybe eventually they'll want to do it all over again.

"That's probably how you should end this story," Towle joked. "With a, 'When will the royal Bledsoe Blues come back?'"

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