NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee defensive end Eric Bakhtiari pulls his flowing brown hair first into one ponytail, then a second before pulling a skull cap over his head to squeeze on his helmet. With everything knotted up on his head, that helmet fits pretty tight.
Bakhtiari (BOK-tee-R-ee) hasn't been growing his hair for fashion or religious motivation. He's going long for a purpose - to make a big donation to Locks of Love to help a cancer patient.
Credit for steering Bakhtiari to Locks of Love goes to Jamal Williams, Bakhtiari's teammate two years ago with the San Diego Chargers. Bakhtiari had decided to quit visiting the barber for a while when Williams suggested Locks of Love.
Now his goal is to cut his hair at the end of this season.
"He really convinced me to do it,'' Bakhtiari said. "Then my best friend from high school, she actually has bone marrow cancer. She lost all of her hair, and she doesn't want mine. She would take it, but in order to get it into a wig it would be difficult. She wants it to go to someone less fortunate.''
Hair care has been relatively easy for the 6-foot-3, 250-pound lineman until this year.
A native of Burlingame, Calif., Bakhtiari was as an undrafted free agent out of San Diego in 2008 and spent two weeks on the Chargers' practice squad before being released and signed by San Francisco for the rest of the season.
The Chargers re-signed Bakhtiari in January 2009 only to waive him at the end of the preseason. He spent two weeks with Tampa Bay's practice squad before the Titans signed him to their practice squad in November. When tackle Jason Jones was put on injured reserve, Bakhtiari got the promotion and had six special teams tackles in his first three career games.
Now he's busy sweating during a Tennessee training camp with a heat index regularly hovering at or above 100 degrees. The humidity curls up his hair that now measures 12 inches - long enough that pulling a brush all the way through is nearly impossible with muscled biceps and shoulders.
"I'm not flexible enough to get it all the way through there,'' Bakhtiari said with a grin. "It's difficult now in training camp. It's under a helmet most times but mostly it's always in a ponytail.''
Actually, he's using the double ponytail because it's a little harder to fit all that hair under the helmet with the added bonus of stability.
"It kind of keeps my helmet there, kind of like keeps it more in place,'' he said.
Bakhtiari's mother gave him a big assist to help him care for all that hair so his donation would be in good shape when the time comes to lop it off.
"When she came out, she saw I was using some like crappy two-in-one shampoo and conditioner. She said, `Uh-uh.' She went to a salon and got me nice shampoo and some real nice conditioner, some leave-in (conditioner), some reconditioning mess. All that stuff,'' Bakhtiari said.
Sometimes on special occasions, Bakhtiari will let his hair down. Don't even ask the question if he's ever been mistaken for a woman, not with those broad shoulders. He also hasn't had teammates kid him since his rookie days when his hair was in what he called an awkward stage .
His response? He'd just tell him his reasons for having long hair.
"Once it got to a certain length, it's almost like a fashion thing. There's a rap song now Lil Wayne sings ... `Long hair don't care.' A lot of guys they don't understand, I'll say that back to them,'' Bakhtiari said.
His mission grew even more personal this offseason when he visited his old friend in the hospital at Stanford University. She was in isolation, requiring him to wash carefully and wear scrubs and a mask to visit her. She's out of isolation now.
Bakhtiari hasn't contacted anyone with Locks of Love just yet, only checking out the nonprofit group's website to see how long his hair must be before the donation can be made to children suffering from long-term medical hair loss from a variety of diseases.
He will check with the group before cutting his hair just to make sure he doesn't make a mistake before finishing off this mission. That will be at the end of the 2010 season.
"I'm hoping I make this team, and we win the Super Bowl. Then I'll give away Super Bowl hair and make a cancer patient a champion,'' Bakhtiari said.