When Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis and his teammates take the field against Michigan on Saturday, the Wildcats will trade their familiar purple for a set of patriotic uniforms like no other — stars and stripes across the shoulders and a distressed pattern that to some looks like blood stains on a flag.
They’re simply the latest push by companies that supply athletic equipment to schools to honor the military, and the players love it — especially when they help raise money for soldiers injured in the line of duty.
"I’m proud we get to wear them," Ellis said. "It’s just reassuring that we’re (supporting) a good cause, so much bigger than just the game. It’s about the project, and it’s about supporting the troops that go out there and fight for our freedom."
The jerseys, designed by Under Armour, will be auctioned after the game, and the school said all proceeds will go to the Wounded Warrior Project.
The uniforms have evoked enough criticism to elicit a clarification from the school. Northwestern spokesman Paul Kennedy said the design "was inspired by the appearance of a flag that has flown proudly over a long period of time" and apologized "for any misinterpretation."
Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said he, too, is honored and doesn’t understand the criticism.
"I’d looked at the design that a couple of other teams wore last year," Fitzgerald said. "I didn’t see anything wrong with them at that time, so I’m not quite sure why there’s been such the negativity about it, especially when there was none last year."
College football is well into the patriotic era first evoked by the camouflage uniforms that debuted in the Army-Navy game five years ago.
Not every fan is enthralled.
"I’m as patriotic as anyone, but to me all this excessive flag waving, `Thank you for your service,’ and stuff like that is just over the top," said Norm Linden, a Vietnam veteran and 1969 graduate of Norwich University, the oldest private military college in the country. "Does every sporting event these days have to become a mini-Nuremburg rally? Honor the vets by giving them a discounted ticket or a free replica game jersey or something like that, but please stop dressing like clowns out there."
According to Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog, 36.9 percent of the money collected for the Wounded Warrior Project is earmarked for fundraising. Still, the charity received a three-star rating because that’s actually a good ratio.
Retired Army veteran Jose Lachapel figures all this flag waving is about the bottom line, not the front line.
"Both private and public entities have jumped on the support-our-troops bandwagon. Colleges and sports teams that go overboard with the salute to the troops are doing it for economic reasons — sponsors, TV, etc.," said Lachapel, who retired from the Army Corps of Engineers after 23 years, including a one-year tour in the Middle East, and now serves as a project manager for the Social Security Administration. "Donate tickets to lower enlisted, donate to armed services charities like USO and official services charities, but the rest are started and are still in it for the money and continue to ride the tidal wave of military patriotism nationwide."
Uniforms represent something special to those who serve, which is why Mark Cunningham isn’t too fond of the military surge on the gridiron.
"As a former Marine, I think all this over-the-top stuff is superficial and, in many regards, an insult to the troops," said the 48-year-old Cunningham, a former combat engineer who served in Operation Desert Storm. "Wearing camouflage football uniforms and sticking flags everywhere does not mean that you understand what any Marine, sailor, airman or soldier has experienced in war or in garrison during peacetime.
"In fact, I would even argue that it takes away from the intended purpose because you did not earn the right to wear the uniform. Uniforms have a deeper meaning to those who served than just an article of clothing."
Even two-time defending national champion Alabama, along with Florida, LSU, Texas and Ohio State have worn Nike’s Pro Combat uniform. Alabama signed a seven-year, $30 million extension with Nike in May 2010 after coach Nick Saban’s first championship season in Tuscaloosa. Though not all Pro Combat uniforms have a military look to them. Alabama’s look like traditional Crimson Tide uniforms.
"I think it’s great that teams and people do things to honor people who have made sacrifices for our country, which veterans most certainly have," said Saban, a self-described traditionalist who doesn’t like change. "We try to do and be and appear like everybody expects us."
Here are five teams that are part of the military uniform surge:
ARMY: The Black Knights started the rush to camouflage in 2008. Army wore black jerseys with camouflage pants for the Navy game, the first rivalry game of a series started by Nike. Army has since worn camouflage four other times, including a complete camouflage uniform against Virginia Military Institute to honor soldiers.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: The 20th-ranked Huskies donned special patriotic jerseys on Wednesday night for their Heroes Game, and 87-year-old Albert Riippi, a World War II veteran and former football letterwinner at NIU, served as honorary captain. The jerseys featured stars on one shoulder, stripes on the other, and the word "Heroes" across the backs instead of player names. The Huskies’ helmet decals had stars and stripes inside the NIU logo. The jerseys are to be auctioned, and proceeds will go to a charity that supports current and former members of the military and their families.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks have worn special jerseys three times around Veterans Day in connection with the Wounded Warriors Project. In 2011, auctioned jerseys brought in about $58,000.
VIRGINIA TECH: The Hokies wore orange camouflage helmets and white military-themed jerseys in September and auctioned them online, with a portion of the proceeds diverted to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. The school has had a Military Appreciation Day for two years and last year sold camouflage hats to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN: Last year, Georgia Southern donned dark blue custom digital camouflage Nike jerseys on its Military Appreciation Day game against Wofford. After the game, 30 of the jerseys were placed on an online auction with a starting bid of $200 for each. Proceeds went to benefit Georgia Southern’s Military Resource Center and the university’s ROTC program.
*** AP sports writers Hank Kurz in Virginia, Pete Iacobelli in South Carolina, John Zenor in Alabama, Tom Coyne in Indiana, Rusty Miller in Ohio, and freelancer Jack McCarthy in Illinois contributed to this report.