Written by Michael Florek
Taking spirit to a new level: Spending $1,000s on inflatable helmets, tunnels the new norm in Texas HS football
The giant skull, the one so detailed it includes an eye patch and teeth, needs to inflate. The Jolly Roger flag needs to rise. The horn needs to sound. Only then can the Wylie Pirates charge onto the football field, through their tunnel and out of the skull’s mouth.
Texas high school teams haven’t simply run onto the field in a long time. They come out of tunnels topped by Vikings and Lions and Eagles, through giant helmets and smoke and nylon banners.
High school teams and boosters spend upward of $9,000 to provide an inflatable tunnel and helmet or mascot that goes up and comes down in minutes for their players to run through on Friday night.
Legendary coach Tom Kimbrough, who coached Plano from 1976 to 1991, remembers cheerleaders and a drill team. The only tunnels he ran through came with the arena.
“When you played at Texas Stadium, the old Texas Stadium, you came out of a tunnel,” Kimbrough said. “Apparently that’s not quite colorful enough.”
In the mid-’90s, inflatable tunnels started filling up Texas high school football stadiums. Helmets, mascot heads, standing mascots and inflatable logos evolved shortly after, according to Kristie Oliver, national sales director at Garland-based All-Star Inflatables, manufacturer of many of the inflatables in use every Friday night.
Which school started the craze? That’s a bit of a mystery.
All-Star Inflatables’ first high school tunnel went to Greenville about 15 years ago. But Greenville coach Marvin Sedberry, also the coach in the mid-’90s, said his boosters got the idea after seeing other teams use them during the playoffs.
Those probably came from Inflatable Images in Brunswick, Ohio. The company started making inflatable player introductions, as they’re known, for the NFL in the early ’90s. Colleges soon followed. In 1996, a Texas high school made its first order.
Which school it was is lost to history, but its initial use on that Friday night 16 years ago had an impact.
“The opposing team called us Monday,” said David Scherba, co-founder of Inflatable Images. “That’s when we knew we had something cooking.”
By all accounts, that’s how inflatables spread through the state: one team seeing its opponent’s creation, taking the idea and getting something better. Now, nearly every major area team has one.
“There were some coaches that I thought looked on it negatively,” Sedberry said. “As the popularity grew, I think more people thought, ‘Well shoot, why not?’”
As school boosters embrace the Texas spirit of making everything bigger and better, the market only appears to be going up. Just look at Mansfield ISD.
Mansfield High School started with a helmet/tunnel combo. Timberview upped the ante with an 18-foot arch with a bicolor tunnel behind it. Mansfield Legacy, no longer content with just a tunnel, added an $8,000 bronco head.
One of the few without an inflatable this season is Garland. The trailer storing its inflatable was stolen before the season. The team has swayed back and forth and done some chants, but it hasn’t found a replacement for the feeling of coming through its tunnel.
“It’s been very strange,” Garland coach Jeff Jordan said. “The kids have talked about it a lot. … We’re still trying to feel our way along until we get something that feels right.”
Garland is an outsider in a state that possibly has more inflatables than any other. At All-Star Inflatables, no other state comes close in demand as Texas. At Inflatable Images, Texas is “at least” in the top five of states that place the most orders.
Oliver estimated that 15 years ago, 15 percent of All-Star Inflatables’ business came from sports inflatables. Now she says it’s around 55 percent. Three of the company’s six full-time manufacturing lines do nothing but make tunnels. The company moves 600 to 800 high school units a year.
Inflatable Images sells about 125 high school and 100 college inflatables in a year. Scherba estimates the purchases have grown about 20 percent per year.
The most expensive unit either company has sold to a Texas high school is Wichita Falls Rider’s horseback-riding Raider, which Inflatable Images made for $18,000. All-Star Inflatables hasn’t had a high school unit go for more than $15,000.
At the luxury level
But neither piece is near the pricing ceiling. Inflatable Images manufactured $40,000 and $35,000 player introductions for the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts, respectively, this year. The Cowboys purchased an inflatable helmet and tunnel combo five years ago for $18,000. It’s no longer in use.
At the college level, the cost depends on the school. Simple helmet and tunnel combos can be the same price as high school inflatables, or much higher.
“We do manufacture everything custom,” Oliver said. “That price point isn’t something that can necessarily be lined out.”
Scherba said colleges spend about $25,000 on average, while high schools usually range from $3,000 to $15,000.
As demand has gone up, prices have generally stayed the same or gone down, according to both companies, thanks to more competition and improved technology. But as school boosters embrace the Texas spirit of making everything bigger and better, complexity appears to be going only up.
Garland’s plan for a new inflatable is an archway, standing 30 feet tall, complete with an owl that is 30 feet wide from wingtip to wingtip. Oliver said it will be “the biggest piece that probably a Dallas County school has ever seen.”
That is, until another school’s booster club learns of it.
Follow Michael Florek on Twitter at @michaelflorek.
Comparing the costs
The range of spending on inflatable tunnels, from most expensive creations (so far) to the basics:
New Orleans Saints
Dallas Cowboys (no longer in use)
Wichita Falls Rider Raiders
Garland Owls (not yet completed)
Basic helmet and tunnel
Inflatable power rankings
Staff writer Michael Florek lists his top five area inflatable tunnels. He rewarded effort. The more time put into the presentation, the higher the ranking.
1. Wylie’s Pirate Skull — The skull is big, menacing and detailed. The skull has cracks and teeth, with the bottom jaw opening up for the players to run through. I’m not sure there’s a better one in the state.
2. Colleyville Heritage’s Panther Head — The actual Panther head could really fit with any of the dozens of teams named the Panthers, so they lose some points for uniqueness, but everything else is first class, from the banner to whoever brought the smoke machine. The Heritage grounds crew earns extra points for its halftime performance. The Panther head started collapsing mere seconds before the players were supposed to run through. It looked like the grounds crew would just scrap the whole operation, but a brave soul ran through the middle and somehow propped the head up. Job well done.
3. DeSoto’s Eagle — Time hasn’t been good to the tunnel. I seriously considered dropping this below Allen.
4. Allen’s Eagle Head — I thoroughly enjoyed the Eagle head when I saw it, but it got lost in the shuffle with all the commotion going on around the opening of Eagle Stadium.
5. Euless Trinity’s Trojan — This would be higher if the tunnel didn’t collapse as the players ran out of it at the beginning of the game. The Trojan at the top looks good, even if he does resemble the Ottawa Senator. Good work by the grounds crew at halftime to figure out the problem.