How the hand-painted Utah football helmets honoring Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe were made

The Utes will wear them when they take on the USC Trojans on Saturday.

(Armando Villarreal) The custom helmets honoring the late Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe that the Utah Utes football team will wear Saturday against USC.

Longtime Utah Utes football fan Travis Vallejo stopped what he was doing when the football team revealed the helmets for Saturday’s game against No. 6 USC. He was so filled with emotion he that needed to regain his composure.

“It just chokes me up,” Vallejo said. “It’s deep.”

The hand-painted helmets depict airbrushed paintings of late Utes players Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, who died almost exactly a year apart from gunshot wounds. It’s just one of the ways the University of Utah is honoring their memories.

The man who painted the helmets, Armando Villarreal, feels the sentiment coming from fans like Vallejo, as well as the university as a whole. He first started to understand what Jordan and Lowe meant to the team when he attended a Utes game last season where his Military Appreciation helmets were worn by the players.

“I don’t think it would have been as significant to me personally if I didn’t get to see and experience that being at that game,” Villarreal said.

Once Villarreal had the parameters of the project, he knew it was going to be an intense undertaking — even more so than normal. His wife, Lora, helped out as usual. But this time, he asked his 12-year-old son and a couple of friends to chip in where they could.

(Armando Villarreal)

Aside from Jordan and Lowe’s painted faces, the helmets have a white stripe with red and black trim down the middle of the helmet, and a No. 22 logo on the back that is shaped like a heart. The white, dotted background shown in the black part of the helmet corresponds to the Moment of Loudness the fans do after third quarters of football games, where they cheer and hold up their cell phone flashlights.

Villarreal used two photos of Jordan and Lowe to recreate for the airbrushed painting. The one of Jordan is from when he is running for a touchdown while watching himself in the big screen. Lowe’s photo is one of him from a practice.

Villarreal said there’s “a ton of weight” he feels to make the helmets as perfect as possible because of what Jordan and Lowe meant to the Utes program.

“I just hope everybody loves this helmet,” Villarreal said. “It’s one of those things that no matter how much time I put into it, it just doesn’t feel like it’s good enough for these two kids and the fans. But I hope that it’s good enough.”

(Armando Villarreal) A progress photo of the custom helmets honoring the late Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe that the Utah Utes football team will wear Saturday against USC.

The helmets are a tangible reminder of how the university is honoring the memories of Lowe and Jordan. It started a scholarship in Jordan’s honor before Lowe died, and now it honors them both. Backup running back Ja’Quinden Jackson received the scholarship earlier this year.

Jackson said the team’s equipment manager showed him a preview of the helmets several months ago and is excited to wear them.

“I feel like it’s they are with us,” Jackson said. “So them being on the helmet, that’s a plus for me. I’m going to turn up.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged that the helmets could make for a more emotional game.

“It could have a little effect in that regard. We’ll see,” Whittingham said. “But we certainly try to remember those guys every day. It’s not just the game that we wear the helmet. ... That could have a little more spark and a little more added incentive.”

Quarterback Cam Rising hopes the helmets can lead to more inspired play on the field.

“Just hopefully it makes us all dig deeper and really look to go for that [extra] 22% and just play like they played — hard and physical and just attack everything,” Rising said.

Villarreal, who is from Nebraska, will attend Saturday’s game between the No. 11 Utes and Trojans. He’s become a big fan ever since he started hand-crafting helmets for the team back in 2019.

“The boys and my wife and I are just huge Utah fans now because they’ve just been so welcoming to us and just unbelievable,” Villarreal said. “Just working with Utah has just been an unbelievable experience.”

Tribune reporter Julie Jag contributed to this story.