In his firefighter’s helmet, Cardinals superfan Duane Schuman stands out in a crowd

Jan 5, 2024, 5:06 AM | Updated: 3:10 pm

The start of the NFL season usually brings fans a mix of excitement and hope.

Hope remained in Arizona Cardinals fans as the team walked off the field with a 13-10 halftime lead Week 1 at Washington.

As the Cardinals began their walk to the visitors’ locker room, fans at home watching the game saw the score flash across the bottom of the screen as a silver firefighter’s helmet decorated in honor of Arizona’s NFL franchise sat on the field.

Duane Schuman’s phone began to buzz.

Message after message came rolling in on the retired firefighter and mega Cardinals fan’s iPhone, all with the same general note: Hey! We saw your helmet on TV when we were watching the game!

“The NFL Network for the halftime had asked if they could borrow my helmet,” Schuman said. “And they took it down to the field.

“You had to see it on TV to see it but, I mean, it was cool. It was a great opportunity.”

In what has become something of his signature look on gamedays has also opened the door to meeting people, going new places and creating unexpected experiences.

“I’m an extrovert,” Schuman said. “I like to visit with people, I like to talk to people and that comes easy to me.”

On Sundays, fans can find Schuman out on the Great Lawn outside State Farm Stadium mingling among various tailgates — always in a Pat Tillman Cardinals jersey and that silver service helmet.

“I wear it every game,” Schuman said of wearing No. 40. “It’s one of those things where I just love the military.

“I love the people who serve in the military, police, fire, medics, doctors, nurses — really everyone who serves.”

But that love is personal for Schuman as one of the paramedics from his years working on Engine 86 in Vancouver, Washington, had served as an Air Force pararescue.

“He would be deployed on occasion and so I would see what his family was dealing with, what he was dealing with,” Schuman said. “So when the Cardinals have the pararescue come down from the rafters, I’m always texting him, ‘Hey, your brothers are here.’ So that really has a special place for me.

“That was one of the things I put on the back of the helmet was the military ribbon … it’s there just for respect for people who serve, have served and comes from being really close to the paramedic and others I had at the station.”

The two Cardinals service ribbons on the back of the helmet are the only decals as the remainder of the helmet is entirely hand painted.

“It was originally red,” Schuman recalled. “I have one picture and it’s completely covered in insulation, sheetrock, debris and different things from a fire we were in.”

After he retired, Schuman went an Oregon-based company, Blowsion, that had painted a motocross helmet for him previously. Only this time, he asked them to transform his retired service helmet.

“I told him that I wanted it white like the Cardinals’ helmets and then basically gave him free rein to kind of do what he wanted to do with the ideas I had,” Schuman said.

Although the artist initially followed Schuman’s request in hopes of replicating the team’s white uniform helmets, the artist wasn’t a fan of how it looked and decided to paint the helmet entirely silver before painting on the Arizona logo in a glossy Cardinal Kandy Red on either side.

“I love it, it’s perfect,” was Schuman’s reaction when he got the finished helmet.

In dedication to the 15 years he served as a captain in the fire service on Engine 86 before being promoted to battalion chief, the leather front piece reads “Arizona Cardinals” with an “E86” patch.

“Really, my favorite time was always on that engine and so I never took that off, that’s my patch from working Engine 86.”

Becoming an Arizona Cardinals fan

Seven years before retiring from the fire service in Washington, Schuman and his wife Michelle bought a house in the Valley.

It was Michelle who suggested and bought the tickets for them to attend their first Cardinals game in 2010.

“We sat up in the nosebleeds, way up high, but it was such a great experience,” Schuman recalled. “… The music’s playing, people are barbecuing, everybody is having a great time.”

Michelle then surprised her husband with tickets for another Cardinals game for his birthday, this time with seats at the 50-yard line.

“Same thing” the people were amazing, the atmosphere is electric, I just love it,” Schuman said.

According to Michelle, the Schumans left the game with the same thought: “We got to find a way to get season tickets.”

From then on, the Cardinals have always been Schuman’s team, despite growing up much closer to another NFL franchise.

“I kind of followed the Seahawks, but I wasn’t like a big fan,” he said.

Hooked from his very first Cardinals game, Schuman knew he wanted to dedicate his service helmet to his favorite team one year out from his retirement in 2017.

“By then I was a battalion chief and I had a white helmet and this one was red,” he said. “I started to think, we’re going to a lot of football games. We had season tickets down here even though we weren’t down here full-time yet because I was still working.”

Football family

That helmet has opened the door for Schuman to connect with NFL fans across the country.

“We went to Nashville last year for the season opener,” he said of one of the many trips and tailgates he and his wife have made to watch the Cardinals. “And this lady yells at me, ‘Hey! If we win this game I get that helmet!’”

Soon that stranger became a friend who shared that her mom was the first Black female firefighter in the state of Tennessee.

“I don’t want to be like, ‘Look at me, look at me!’” Schuman said. “But at the same time, if you can make a new friend, why not?”

Experiences like that happen before Cardinals games for Schuman, which have led to invites to various tailgates near and far, growing his football family.

“We’ll kind of make the rounds and go to the firefighters’ tailgate first,” he said of their game day routine. “Go see some other friends that have a tailgate and then we’ll go around the stadium.

“There’s just a ton of people tailgating that we’ve got to know and meet along the way.”

But it was James Conner who truly connected football and family for Schuman.

The Cardinals running back was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015 and returned to play for his then-team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in September 2016.

Around the time of Conner’s return to the game, the Schumans’ then-21-year-old son Jake was diagnosed with Stage 2B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“As I was taking him to treatment every two weeks for six months we would talk about James and how he made such a recovery,” Schuman said. “I had never seen Jake sick in my life and I tried to find inspiration to keep him fighting and to never give up.

“This only made me respect James’ comeback even more. When James signed with the Cardinals, it only made me that much more of a fan.”

The Schumans’ son is now five years cancer-free, and Conner is now seven years cancer-free.

Beyond the field

As the Cardinals prepare to close out the regular season Sunday by hosting the Seattle Seahawks, he knows that the next messages that will pop up on his phone will be different from the ones received when Arizona opened the season in October.

“Whenever we play the Seahawks, it’s always a big text fest with my buddies up there that are Seahawks fans,” Schuman said. “It’s fun banter back and forth, and a lot of guys from the fire service up there are Seahawks fans.”

When he heads out to State Farm Stadium this coming Sunday in his Pat Tillman jersey with a firefighters patch on the chest and his custom Cardinals helmet — win or lose — Schuman is connecting his service family, football family and his favorite team.

“When we’re in the firehouse, people outside don’t know what you’re going through or dealing with,” Schuman said. “It’s the same thing here. I don’t know what they’re going through or dealing with in the locker room. All I can do is be supportive.”

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In his firefighter’s helmet, Cardinals superfan Duane Schuman stands out in a crowd