Interview // A Detailed Look Inside adidas Football’s Dark Ops Collection

words, interview & images // Nick DePaula:

In recent years, it’s become commonplace in the footwear industry for brands to highlight special moments during both the football and basketball seasons with celebratory footwear. Whether it’s something as simple as an annual Halloween themed pack, or pink cleats for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’ve seen several events, causes and initiatives represented at the highest levels of sport through the years.

As you can expect, some moments take on a greater importance and hold grander meaning than others, and every fall, Veteran’s Day provides a platform for deeper storytelling. Adidas Football has been at the forefront of not only honoring our military troops through layered and detailed cleats, but also tying together an athlete connection with a charitable cause.

“This is something that everyone can rally around,” beams Todd Rolak, adidas Football’s Senior Design Director. “Everyone is into it and wants to support it.”

In 2013, adidas first dove further into its Veteran’s Day theme, with a pack centered around Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III, who had just been named the Offensive Rookie of the Year in his debut campaign the season prior.

“Because of his military background and his parents growing up in the military, it was a perfect partnership to bring to the table,” says Rolak. “We wanted to show his upbringing and how we could honor him and his family.”

To hear all about the detailed backstory behind this year’s adidas Football Veteran’s Day collection, which takes on a “Dark Ops” inspiration throughout the full collection, we spoke at length with Rolak and Thomas Hartings, the category’s Senior Designer.

The Insight // Honoring Pat Tillman:

For this year’s Veteran’s Day series of cleats, the adidas Football team looked beyond a more broad military theme, and zeroed in on specific branches of the military for inspiration.

“In the past, we’ve done a blanket story honoring all troops,” reveals Rolak. “As we do this on a yearly basis, we want to focus on some of these guys that are going on difficult missions and risking their lives for us. This season, we wanted to concentrate on the support of our troops, through the lens of our different special forces.”

With that insight in mind, a more specific focus led the group to a “Dark Ops” theme centered around three key chapters of the military: Navy Seals, Delta Force and the Army Rangers. Each sector of service would be represented in distinct colorways drafting off of the servicemen and women’s uniforms.

“It starts with honoring Pat Tillman’s legacy, through the Rangers,” says Rolak.

Tillman played collegiately at Arizona State University, a recently signed adidas program, and went on to play professionally with the Arizona Cardinals.

Most impressively, he was so moved by the September 11th, 2001 attacks that he dropped his NFL career and immediately joined the military with his brother in the spring of 2002. He served valiantly for two years as an Army Ranger in the 75th Regiment, up until his unfortunate 2004 death in Afghanistan.

He was permanently honored four years ago at ASU with the opening of the Pat Tillman Veteran’s Center on campus, a 3,400 square-foot facility dedicated to the education and support of veterans. Before every game, the Sun Devils football team takes the field by walking through The Tillman Tunnel, a reminder of his courage and dedication.

Now, adidas looks to partner with the school and his foundation to once again honor Tillman. Coinciding with the school’s week-long “Salute to Service” initiative, the Sun Devils will be the first to debut the special edition Dark Ops cleats when they face off this week against the Oregon Ducks at home on Thursday, October 29th.

“Tillman is really the genesis of the pack,” Rolak continues. “It started off with the Rangers, and it started with his training within that. We wanted to bring attention to his squad, and we looked at detailing that the Rangers had. We used specific pantone colors from their color palette, and we looked at all of the gear that they’re using.”

In addition to the green, tan and black hues found on the U.S. Army uniforms, the cleats also feature a camouflage sockliner, highlighted by an adidas Football logo stitched in gold, drafting off of the embroidery execution of the US flag patch found on the Rangers’ uniforms.

“We’re always looking to be about the merging of speed and culture,” outlines Rolak. “In this instance, it’s a different expression of culture. We’re honoring and paying tribute to our troops that get in harm’s way for our freedoms.”

Designing For Speed // “Everything Gets Upgraded”:

Every season, adidas Football approaches their statement level models with speed and lightweight in mind as founding principles of design. With the “Dark Ops” collection, each cleat not only continues to carry on that lightweight approach, but the team also looked to elevate materials and construction across the board.

“The idea was, ‘Everything gets upgraded,'” says Thomas Hartings, the cleat’s designer. “The same way the military needs the highest grade for their gear, we wanted to provide that with our footwear.”

With that upgraded notion setting the course of the cleat’s brief, adidas actually partnered with DuPont, the maker of Kevlar, universally renowned as one of the strongest materials.

“Instead of just using carbon, we’re using Kevlar carbon,” notes Rolak. “We also have Kevlar stitching on the upper, and material choices that tie directly into their gear and uniform.”

All throughout the cleats, you’ll find helpings of Kevlar that help to make this year’s lineup of cleats some of the most battle-ready yet. There’s Kevlar stitching woven atop the upper, and Kevlar insets through the shoe’s speed plate for added stability and responsiveness.

“Kevlar really brings it home for me, and ties to the soldiers and the real sacrifice that goes on in the military,” Hartings says. “Bringing that story into footwear is a pretty big deal, but the other side of it, is just the strength that the Kevlar stitching and Kevlar plate are providing. They’re such high performing materials.”

While cleats from all brands typically stick to synthetics and wovens these days, the group looked to a more rugged and sturdy textile for the upper, ultimately landing on a combination of thin leather, nubuck and ballistic mesh.

“We spent a lot of time at military surplus stores and also looking at the gear that these guys are wearing,” says Hartings. “In the past, we’ve used different camos so we had that tie to it, but here, we wanted to get even more authentic in terms of the materials we were using.”


below: Thomas Hartings’ final adidas Freak “Dark Ops” rendering

The 2016 Freak & adiZero 5-Star 5.0:

As you get further into the design of the Freak, the lacing system quickly stands out as a hero of the cleat, and one of the many “upgraded” highlights. Three rows of six lockweb eyelet options extend down across the midfoot, drawn from the carrying vests worn by the US military’s elite forces and offering up a variable lacing system for adjustable and customizable fit.

“The biggest upgrade is this midfoot panel, to get it as thin as possible, but also as strong as possible,” describes Hartings. “That was directly pulled from how lightweight and thin their vests are, and that inspired this lacing system.”

Through the collar, the brand’s sleekened and swift Three Stripes branding can be found stitched in, a noted difference from the logo’s typical application.

“On the in-line model, we used molded TPU for logos,” says Hartings. “To stay true to the story here, we wanted to use embroidery that is close to the badges and nameplates on military uniforms.”

The Freak model, with its more sturdy and brute-strength inspired upper, is a contrast from the low-top 5-Star 5.0, an all-out speed cleat franchise that’s become a staple for adidas Football.

“For adiZero, we had to be lightweight. It’s always the lightest in class,” stresses Hartings. “We wanted to reduce as much as possible, but also still stay true to the materials that the military uses. Midway through, we spec’d this matte plate finish, which was inspired by how their helmets and items don’t reflect light to help them be stealth and stay undercover.”

In keeping with a focus on lightweight, the team turned to ballistic mesh through the quarter and collar on the adiZero model. “It’s a different look for a football cleat, and typically is only seen in other shoes or categories,” Hartings admits. “For each material, we wanted to find the right strength-to-weight ratio. Where we ended up, it was the perfect balance of performance and pushing the limits of where we haven’t been before.”


below: The “Dark Ops” adiZero 5-Star 5.0 (top) and “Dark Ops” Freak.

Custom Badging:

With the design of each cleat locked in and finalized, the team looked to add a series of icons and badges to each model to bring the theme home.

“The PT-42 badge on the tongue of Arizona State’s cleats is a huge sign-off and a point of pride for them to be able to represent someone that was so important to the university and to our country,” details Hartings.

It’s the same badge that can be seen above Pat at Arizona State’s Tillman Tunnel entryway to the field, and will be exclusive to the Sun Devils’ cleats.

“Our other schools will have this pretty bad-ass skull badge,” Hartings smiles. “We can’t use the official markings of these units, of course, but we wanted to create badging that was inspired by what each of the forces are most known for.”

As schools around the country take the field in the coming weeks in advance of this year’s Veteran’s Day holiday, adidas is hoping to add a little more meaning to the tribute in honoring our nation’s troops.

This Thursday, Arizona State will be leading the way, debuting the “Dark Ops” theme at home on the gridiron while looking to honor the legacy and memory of one of its own, former player and US Army Ranger, Pat Tillman.



The U.S. Army Ranger inspired “Dark Ops” 2016 adizero 5-Star 5.0 x KEVLAR® is available for $120 and the Dark Ops 2016 adidas Freak x KEVLAR® is available for $149 on October 29th at and

The special edition PT-42 retail product line will be on sale at university bookstores and online at and, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Pat Tillman Foundation.

below: Todd Rolak, adidas Football Senior Design Director