How the NFL Cheats: Foreign Substances

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistSeptember 9, 2016

Oakland Raiders defensive back Lester Hayes, his hands covered with mud, gets a towel in fourth quarter on Sunday, Dec. 28, 1980 in Oakland, after scoring on an intercepted Ken Stabler pass to get Raiders a 27-7 AFC Wildcard win over the Houston Oilers. (AP Photo)
Anonymous/Associated Press

Whether you call it breaking the rules, bending the rules or just getting creative with the rules, cheating has always been a part of the NFL and always will be. This is Part 1 in a Bleacher Report series on how NFL players and teams seek out some advantage, any advantage, over their competition.


It was October 1977, and Lester Hayes was a rookie defensive back out of Texas A&M playing in the first game of his NFL career for the Oakland Raiders. 

He was approached on the sidelines by the team's star wide receiver. Fred Biletnikoff wiped something off his ankle and smeared it on Hayes' fingers.

Hayes' world changed in that moment.

"Clear stickum, from a can," Hayes remembers. "This stuff was stupendous. It was a National Football League secret. Top-secret stuff."

In his first three seasons as a starter, Hayes would go on to intercept 24 passes—four more than the next-closest players over that time span.

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And the adhesive helped Hayes in other ways too.

"We played in a bump-and-run defensive technique," he says. "I discovered the stickum could help me prolong the bump a second longer. That was very important."

Stickum became part of a mystique—and a psychological tool as well as a physical one. Hayes' teammate Matt Millen remembers Hayes, known as "Judge" to his teammates, once using stickum in an unconventional way during the 1980 AFC Wild Card Game against the Houston Oilers.

Paul Sakuma / AP Photo

"They were driving for a field goal into the half," Millen, a former linebacker, says. "Judge goes to the sideline, gets a big glob of stickum and puts it on his sock. As he came walking in, he puts it on his hand. He was loaded. He had it everywhere.

"[Linebacker] Ted Hendricks and I were standing there right on the ball. Judge comes walking by, takes a glob of stickum, wipes it on the ball, then keeps walking. [Oilers center] Carl Mauck came walking up to the line, grabbed the ball and got stickum all over his hands. He looks at Judge Hayes, veins popping out of his head, screaming. The ref throws him a towel, he wipes his hands, and they get a different ball.

"Then he goes to snap the ball and snaps it over the holder's head. So it worked. Judge used it as a weapon."

The impetus to outlaw stickum came from complaints by offensive players, especially quarterbacks who found it difficult to pass and handle a tacky football.

When stickum was banned in 1981, they called it the Lester Hayes Rule. But the Lester Hayes Rule did not prevent players from using stickum. Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, for example, admitted during a 2015 ESPN interview to using stickum in a career that began in 1985 and said "all players did it".

"It was banned after Super Bowl XV, but players still used it," Hayes says.

Rice said he used spray stickum. Hayes used a paste.

Hayes' use of stickum is perhaps the most notable way a player has used a foreign substance or object to gain an edge. But it is far from the only way. Stories about foreign substances are part of the game's lore.

According to NFL Films' Chicago Bears: The Complete History, Bears founder George Halas put itching powder in opponents' uniforms. Former Bills, Colts and Steelers offensive tackle Will Wolford admitted to using Kevlar—a synthetic fiber once used as a steel replacement in racing tires—to line his padded gloves. He said a police officer he knew gave it to him.

Former Bears defensive lineman Dan Hampton says in the 1980s some players taped metal bars on their arms beneath their pads. For a while, he says, officials would check players' arms.

"There was a guard named Doug Wilkerson," Hampton says of the former Charger. "I played against him in 1981. He was a big, strong fella. He hit me with an uppercut with his forearms, right in the jaw. I saw stars for a long time, maybe eight minutes. I know he had to have something in there."

In 1978, the NFL clarified pass blocking so arms could be extended and open hands could be used. Subsequently, Millen said his former teammate Gene Upshaw told him offensive linemen sometimes put tacks in their gloves so they could grab defenders more easily. 

Of course, defensive linemen had to come up with a countermove. Hampton had an idea.

"When offensive linemen started holding, I put a lot of Vaseline on my chest," he says. "Necessity is the mother of invention. For a while, everybody on our defense started doing it, but then it wasn't long before the opposition was sending the officials after us before the game and at halftime to check our jerseys."

In 1981, the NFL banned "slippery substances on the body, equipment or uniform of any player" and later instituted a procedure in which linemen were checked for the substances before the start of the game and at halftime.

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mark Kaboly last year that his offensive linemen sprayed themselves with silicone so opponents could not easily grasp their torsos. Quarterbacks like Montana enjoyed better pass protection from slippery linemen, but they didn't enjoy it when the silicone made balls more slippery.

Another legal way to achieve the same goal without the spray was deployed by the New York Giants. Former running back Tiki Barber says trainers used a thick, very sticky double-sided tape on his jersey so it would stick to his pads.

"Since I had a back pad, all my shoulder pads and my back pad would be covered with this double-sided tape, so any part of the jersey touching it would not come off," says Barber, who now co-hosts Tiki and Tierney on CBS Sports Radio. "It made it very difficult to grab my jersey. I also liked it because it made me look clean. I think it was a pretty common practice."

Most foreign substances used by NFL players involve enhancing their own ability to grab or diminishing an opponent's ability to grab.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh McCown has observed fellow quarterbacks using powders to keep their hands dry. "I don't know if it was chalk or baby powder, but it's been years since I saw a guy use it," he says. "It helps guys who sweat a lot. I didn't use it because I like a little moisture on my fingers. I lick my fingers."

In 2012, the Chargers were fined $20,000 after using Gorilla Gold's sticky towels on their sideline. But the fine was for concealing the towels—not using them. The president of the company told the San Diego Union-Tribune's Michael Gehlken that at one point, about 70 percent of NFL teams had used them.

When taping ankles, many players use a sticky spray called Tuf-Skin to get pre-wrap to adhere. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback Don Majkowski says the product has other beneficial uses. "It's spray stickum, basically."

Former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon says when conditions were wet, players would spray the Tuf-Skin on a towel and then wipe it on their hands to make them tacky. "We had to be careful so officials didn't see it," he says. "You look for every little edge you can get."

Barber said he saw others use Tuf-Skin, but he didn't need it. "I wore gloves," he says. "They are stickier than anything."

Millen says the gloves probably are stickier than stickum.

"I know what the gloves can do," says Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, known for having some of the best hands ever. "With the technology of the gloves, it's totally different."

Today's gloves are so effective, in fact, that some suspect many of the spectacular catches we have seen in recent years (cough, Odell Beckham Jr., cough) would not have happened without them. 

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

The NFL Competition Committee has discussed legislating gloves for several years, according to chairman Rich McKay. "There could be a rule at some point," says McKay, who also is president of the Atlanta Falcons. "The object of such a standard wouldn't be to make it harder on the receiver; but the traditional skill of catching the ball has to be considered as gloves continue to evolve."

Some foreign substances have unintended benefits. In the NFC Championship Game after the 2009 season, New Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey allegedly told members of the Minnesota Vikings he had used DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide)—most often used as an ointment for horses—to treat a sprain. The Vikings' noses told them something was up.

"You couldn't walk by the guy," Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway says. "He had so much of that stuff on that he smelled like holy hell. It was a strong medicine smell, a vicious smell."

Tackling Shockey that day was a little less appealing.

Was it illegal? Was it cheating? Depends on who you ask, but whatever the intended purpose, it's one of the great stories you'll hear from players and execs on how foreign substances have been used to gain an advantage in the NFL.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @DanPompei.