Bear Woods was still in elementary school when his best friend’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Hoping to help in some way, Woods asked his parents for permission to grow his sandy red hair long to donate it to charity.
More than two decades and several donations later, the veteran linebacker with the Toronto Argonauts wears his long dreadlocks like a coat of armour, a virtual source of strength on the football field and in life.
“Hairstyle is part of who you are,” Woods said. “And in football, we’re still playing a game, we’re grown men playing a kids game. So there’s a swag to it about your personality, and your confidence, and I think that’s what any hairstyle shows. Especially dreads.”
The 30-year-old Woods is one of at least a half a dozen members of the Argonauts’ defence that will be recognizable in Sunday’s Grey Cup for the long, coiled hair that hangs halfway down their numbers – earning them the nickname “Dreaded D.”
“It just ended up being a thing,” said defensive back Rico Murray, wearing Malcolm X glasses with his dreads piled on top of his head in a giant bun. “We looked around and maybe all but two or three of us on the starting lineup had dreads. That was kind of cool.”
The trend toward long hair has forced football officials to lay down rules. Essentially long hair is fair game because it’s deemed part of the player’s equipment, thus the ball-carrier can be pulled down by a tug on his hair.
And just like a player without the ball can’t be held by the jersey, they can’t be held by the hair. But it happens, said Williams.
“I actually cut my hair this year, it was much longer than this,” Woods said, holding up one of his tangled strands. “It was getting pulled so much this year I cut about four inches off.”
The CFL basically adopted the NFL’s hair rule, which was written in 2003 and is affectionately known as the “Ricky Rule” after Ricky Williams. The longtime NFLer, who played the 2006 season with Toronto, has worn dreads since his college days with the Texas Longhorns.
Perhaps the most famous football hair incident happened in 2013, when Jacksonville’s Jason Babin tackled Arizona running back Andre Ellington, yanking out a handful of his hair in the process. There was no flag on the play.
Argos cornerback Akwasi Owusu-Ansah hasn’t cut his hair since 2011, in his rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys. His inspiration?
“Honestly the inspiration for most American players was Ricky Williams,” Owusu-Ansah said. “He was the first sweet player who had locks, and it just looked so sweet coming out of the helmet, and literally I’ll tell you, that was the inspiration for like 95 per cent of players, just the way it looked.
“And then once I started growing them, I started learning more about them, now I’m really attached to my locks.”
Linebacker Marcus Ball drew inspiration from long-haired biblical characters such as Samson and Roman gods like Hercules.
“Absolutely, it’s a source of strength,” Ball said. “It represents my journey, and what I’ve been through in different stages, and situations and experiences in my life.”
Woods, whose dad is a pastor, told reporters during his college days at Troy that faith played a part in his long hair, and spoke of Samson.
Dreads are made by intentionally weaving strands together to make long coils. Murray, who hasn’t cut his hair since April 25, 2007, said what’s special about the Argos’ “Dreaded D” is that every head of long hair is unique. Woods’ dreads are unruly, while defensive back Johnny Sears Jr. wore his in tidy strands Thursday, decorated with gold beads.
“One thing I learned about locks is that nobody’s locks are similar, everybody’s locks grow differently and they all represent that individual in a different way,” Murray said. “I feel like mine represent me in a sort of way.”
And while they swill swap names of “lockticians” – hairstylists who specialize in dreadlock care – the Argos players don’t share haircare tips.
“Nah,” Sears laughed. “We let you know if they don’t smell too good, but that’s about it.”