The Utes’ military appreciation helmets were all hand painted by one artist in a small Nebraska town

Utah will honor the U.S.S. Salt Lake City with its uniforms on Saturday night

(Armando Villareal) Armando Villareal works on special airbrushed helmets for the Utah football team in his studio in Imperial, Neb. The team will wear the helmets on Saturday representing the USS Salt Lake City, a heavy cruiser in World War II.

Armando Villarreal isn’t sure what to expect when he walks into Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first time this weekend.

After all, what does a critical Pac-12 matchup mean to a loyal Cornhusker from the tiny town of Imperial, Neb.?

His only prediction: “I’m pretty sure I’m going to be wiping away some tears.”

For the past few months, Villarreal and his wife, Lora, have painstakingly hand painted 150 helmets for the University of Utah’s meeting with No. 4 Oregon. They airbrushed a silver-and-orange scene, an homage to the U.S.S. Salt Lake City cruiser that fought throughout the Pacific during World War II.

It is a project for a school he’d never rooted for, and a ship whose history he never knew. But over the course of the last few years, Villarreal has developed a special connection with both.

‘The One Ship Fleet’

By day, Villarreal works his regular job as a water operator for the city of Imperial. He checks meters, deals with wells and water towers, spends long days fixing busted lines in the town of 2,000 people.

Then by night, Villarreal and his wife have dedicated untold hours in recent years to creating beautiful custom helmets in an old upholstery workspace at his father’s house.

Villarreal first worked with the U. when he created the throwback helmets the Utes wore in 2019. In 2020, he was working on another project for the U. before it was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Then he was presented with another opportunity.

Utah officials showed Villarreal the special uniforms they’d designed for a Military Appreciation Night.

(Armando Villareal) Special airbrushed helmets for the Utah football team in Villareal's studio in Imperial, Neb. The team will wear the helmets on Saturday representing the USS Salt Lake City, a heavy cruiser in World War II.

“It was amazing,” Villarreal said. “I’d never heard of the U.S.S. Salt Lake City. I started looking at all of these pictures and the history of it. To read everything it had done was just fascinating.”

The ship, a Pensacola Class-cruiser, earned the nickname “The One Ship Fleet” because of its success in battle. Navy historians credit the Salt Lake City with sinking or helping to sink 15 enemy vessels and damaging at least 10 others. The heavy cruiser also aided in destroying a dozen planes and in the bombing of a dozen Japanese land bases.

The Salt Lake City fought through the entire Pacific War. Just 11 sailors serving on the ship lost their lives in battle.

[Read more about the U.S.S. Salt Lake City’s history.]

Villarreal is an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Kosovo.

“Being a veteran, these military projects are always near and dear to me,” he said.

But as he read about the Salt Lake City’s history, he had a realization. Villarreal’s grandfather served in World War II, as a signalman on a ship.

“He would have been in some of the same campaigns,” Villarreal said. “They would have worked in close proximity with each other. That was a really, really special connection for me.”

“Only a human can do that”

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd, a self-described “military brat,” was one of the first Utes to get a peek at Villarreal’s helmet, donning one for a photoshoot in late summer.

“They’re gorgeous,” Lloyd said. “I got to do the reveal and when I first saw them, I was just in shock. I was like, ‘Wow, these are amazing.’ … The helmets are beautiful.”

Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III was also impressed by the look, though it wasn’t until this week he found out the helmets had been hand-crafted by a single artist.

“It makes sense why they’re so beautiful,” he said. “Only a human can do that.”

So how long does it take to a human to do that? To make just one custom helmet?

“I don’t know,” Villarreal said laughing.

(Armando Villareal) Armando Villareal takes a photograph with special airbrushed helmets for the Utah football team in his studio in Imperial, Neb. The team will wear the helmets on Saturday representing the USS Salt Lake City, a heavy cruiser in World War II.

He explained: “We get all of these boxes of helmets and my wife sanded them all and cut the masking and put it on all of the helmets. So when I get it, all I need to do is airbrush it. We do 20 at a time, but they’ll all be at various stages of the process. It depends on the day and how good things are going. I never know how long anything takes.”

“At first you’re working until 10 or 11 p.m. and then later in the process it’s 2 or 3 in the morning.”

Villarreal has now done seven different helmet projects for schools ranging from Maryland to Pittsburgh to Central Florida.

He has a clear favorite.

“Just overall, what this helmet means to me and the look, this one is by far my favorite,” Villarreal said.

The last of the helmets were completed and shipped to Salt Lake City early this month, so Utah’s equipment team could add decals and other final touches to them.

On Saturday, Villarreal and his family will be at Rice-Eccles Stadium to see their hard work in person, all 150 finished helmets in one place for the first time.

“I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “But I’ll probably be emotional. I feel a connection to them now.”

Tribune reporter Alex Vejar contributed to this story.