Eye black — what’s the deal with eye black?
It is indeed a burning question — at least it’s burning in my brain, or what’s left of it, since I used to play a lot of football, which caused a lot of my brain cells to fall out through the earholes of my helmet during relentless and repeated impact.
It is all about football these days. If you’re in Canada and you happen to like football, you must be positively ecstatic what with football playoffs eating up most of the TV sports menu, and dominating heated discussions over beverages.
Those of you who couldn’t care less if another football game was ever played again, or those who don’t know the difference between football and fried chicken, must be right peeved that a bunch of large men in spandex chasing a pigskin has bumped important news of the day, such as who got kicked off Dancing with the Stars or which celebrity put on 110 pounds while announcing a messy divorce during rehab.
So, given that football is today’s obligatory topic of choice, the real question is not who’s going to win and by how much — no, as previously mentioned, if you go up a notch, question-wise, from “real question” you get “burning question,” and that level, for me, concerns the lingering mystery of eye black.
“Harley, what are you babbling about this time?” I can hear you asking right out loud. Good question.
Although you’ll have to speak up because I could barely hear you from this far away.
Firstly of all, eye black is a huge part of football. “Don’t you mean ‘black eye’?” I can hear you say, much louder this time, thank you. No, I mean eye black, which is a decades-old tradition in football that consists of players smearing their cheeks with a stripe of black gunk under each eye.
When I was a weekend warrior junior high football player in the city Pee Wee Tackle Football League many, many touchdowns ago (not mine unfortunately), I made darn sure I put those thick black rectangular smears on my cheeks under my eyes.
Many guys swear by cork black — which is the toxic black soot power you get when you take a cork and burn the end with a match and when it’s cooled down you rub the black on your cheeks.
Some of my young teammates even tried black felt pen, but just about had to get some sort of clinical Dermabrasion Laser Skin Peel to get it off after the game.
I myself tried a good finger-full of shoe polish, which was really awful and a lot messier and smellier than what some smarter guys used, which was a strip of black hockey tape under each eye.
But still, tape wasn’t nearly as cool as a thick smear of gunk.
Even though I didn’t know until long after my football career ended (age 12), the theoretical reason football players wear the black under their eyes is so that it takes down the glare of the sun or stadium lights so that they don’t suddenly squint when they’re busy making a big play.
I wouldn’t personally know on account of my “big plays” usually consisted of tripping on my oversized, city-issued canvas football pants when I was supposed to be sacking the quarterback.
Some people, including a small number of actual football players and rebel coaches, think eye black is nothing short of showboating bunk, put on by players to look scary and to feel tough and mean.
Which, of course, is exactly why we wore it in pee wee football.
In fact, a few of us always made sure to stop at the corner store on our bicycles after the game with our pads and our eye black still on, just to make sure everybody knew we were dangerously cool and tough football players coming from an important tilt.
City league notwithstanding, being a pathologically curious person when it comes to useless details that everybody else has the common sense to not even think about, I underwent intensive research by clicking on Wikipedia.
You will, no doubt, be as relieved as I am to find that there was an actual scientific study done in 2003, which found that eye black is in fact “statistically significant” in reducing glare and increasing contrast.
So there you go, you can rest easy knowing that not only are there semi-believable reasons for football players to don eye black, but you can also be assured that scientists continue to spend hard-earned taxpayer money to conduct important life-changing experiments like studying black smears on the cheeks of professional athletes.
Meantime, when I watch a big CFL game on the tube, like I plan to be doing this weekend, I often get an irresistible urge to smudge on some eye black. Just to be football-cool again.
In fact, I think I’ll go finish the bottle of wine the neighbours gave us. It’s definitely an exciting TV football weekend and I just might need that cork.
Harley Hay is a local filmmaker and freelance writer.