DENVER, Jan. 17 - The first sign of stubble -- if not trouble -- came without notice on an unremarkable day months ago, when neither Jake Plummer nor Ben Roethlisberger shaved. Chin style beard.
Countless days and whiskers later, it has come to this: a championship game featuring quarterbacks whose mugs look more at home in a saloon than a salon, a face-off of facial hair, where ZZ Top might be logical halftime entertainment.
Only the trash talking is razor sharp.
"He's got a nice one, a real nice one," Broncos tackle George Foster said of Plummer and his beard. "I like it. It's better than Ben's."
Both starting quarterbacks in Sunday's American Football Conference championship game, Denver's Plummer and Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger, wear unusually full beards.
By being the face of teams on the brink of the biggest sporting event in the country, they have started a debate.
"It's absolutely a revolution," said Phil Olsen, the self-appointed captain of Beard Team U.S.A., which competes in the biannual World Beard and Moustache Championships. At the recent event in Berlin, an American captured just one of the 17 events: sideburns. But Americans are increasingly competitive, Olsen said, making his truly a growth sport.
As he put it: "Men are saying, 'We are going to be who we want to be.' "
The beards of Plummer and Roethlisberger mostly speak for themselves. They are not artsy, wispy things. They are not the shadowy five-day stubble favored by celebrities aiming to look simultaneously cool and incognito. They are not as manicured as a suburban lawn, like the goatee or the patch.
"His beard's not even kept trim," the Broncos backup quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt said of Plummer. "He has a girlfriend who probably takes care of the random hairs around here" -- Van Pelt pointed to the lower neck -- "but you can see it's not all trimmed nice."
Styles of beard cuts
The only people who fuss over the beards, it seems, are those not wearing them. Plummer has treated questions about his beard -- and his unkempt hair, now threatening his shoulders -- the way he treats oncoming pass rushers. He rolls from them, without a word.
Roethlisberger, too, does not understand the fascination with his face. He told reporters last month that he sprouted the beard to fend off the western Pennsylvania winter, as if that should be reason enough. But imitators are encouraged; at Halloween, fans took part in a Roethlisberger look-alike contest on his Web site. Participants included boys and girls wearing No. 7 jerseys on their backs and smudges of dark paint on their chins and cheeks.
The beards have added a shroud of mystery to the quarterbacks, almost as if they feel they can hide a part of themselves behind, well, a part of themselves.
"I think Jake tried to make a fashion statement," said Broncos place-kicker Jason Elam, tongue planted inside his smooth cheek. "But it hasn't really caught on yet."
And that is true outside the locker room and well outside of Denver, all the way to Manhattan.
At Gentleman's Quarters, a tony salon in the hip Lower Downtown district of Denver, the director, Johnna Pasquan, said that hair was "definitely going longer, kind of shaggier, more textured." She called it the "perfectly disheveled look."
But full beards? Not so much. And Denver quarterback imitators?
"No one has come in and asked for the Plummer," Pasquan said.
Olsen, the beard-team captain, offered anecdotal evidence of the beard's burgeoning popularity.
"Just look around town, it seems to me you see more and more beards," he said.
Of course, Olsen's town is the mountain burg of Tahoe City, Calif.
Nationally, some beard styles may be gaining marginally in scope, but it is mostly the partial-growth variety, said Chris Berend, Esquire magazine's senior associate editor.
The full beard has no such room for growth in most corporate offices, he said.
Plummer and Roethlisberger have discovered one willing place, at least outside of George Steinbrenner's well-shaved Yankees -- professional sports.
"I don't think we're witnessing a renaissance of beards," Berend said. "They are in one of the few arenas where you can grow your beard as long as possible and get respect for it."
The faces of the quarterbacks have drawn critiques from mainstream newspaper columns to online Web logs, including those geared toward football fans, gay men and teenage girls. At beardcommunity.com, a bulletin-board discussion titled "The Bearded Plummer" began this week.
Plummer started the season with only a caterpillar moustache that curled around his lips. He drew comparisons to adult film stars of the 1970's. When he shaved it in September, one blogger began an online petition encouraging Plummer to grow it back. Earlier this week, it had 5,910 cyber signatures.
Instead, Plummer grew a full beard. At an October fund-raising auction for the Jake Plummer Foundation, supporting sick children and people with Alzheimer's, bids to have Plummer shave reportedly reached $1,750. Two women intercepted the idea and offered $2,500 for him to keep it.
Mens face shaving styles
He has. And the longer it gets, and the more Plummer looks like a Phish concertgoer instead of the boy-next-door quarterback, the more the topic grows. The online home page for The Rocky Mountain News on Monday featured a photo essay tracing the growth of Plummer's facial hair. A Denver news station spent part of its Monday night broadcast comparing Plummer's beard to Roethlisberger's.
Whichever player reaches the Super Bowl should be prepared for as many questions about his face as his right arm. But if the beards look to be headed mainstream, they may just come off.
"As more people told him to cut his hair," Van Pelt said of Plummer, "he was like: 'No, I'm done doing that. I'm done trying to be your cookie-cutter guy. I'm going to be myself, I'm going to do it my way. I'll play football; critique me on the football field. Stop critiquing me off the field, the way I look and dress.' "
Attached to the nameplate in Van Pelt's locker room stall is the 1978 football card of his father, Brad, when he was a linebacker for the Giants. His face is covered in a full beard.
It was around then that beards were last widely seen in the N.F.L. Maybe Roethlisberger is a modern-day Franco Harris, and Plummer an updated Lyle Alzado. Maybe each aspires to be Dan Fouts, forever the standard of bearded signal-callers. But even those beards seemed to meet a razor on occasion. At Floyd's Barber Shop, a hipster outlet in Denver's edgy Capitol Hill neighborhood, Justine Gallagher, a stylist, said she would clean up Plummer's beard around the edges "so he doesn't look like a recluse who just came down from the mountains."
One such man, either Plummer or Roethlisberger, will emerge as a Super Bowl quarterback, the A.F.C.'s offering against smooth-faced -- and bald-headed -- Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks, or Jake Delhomme of the Panthers.
And no matter how close Sunday's game is, fans have at least one reason to be thankful: Only in a metaphorical sense can the winner be decided by a whisker.