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How two artists making custom cleats are helping change the NFL's culture

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From DeSean Jackson to Antonio Brown, Marcus Rivero and Corey Pane are behind the cleats that capture everyone’s eyes.

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

In the NFL, a league that prefers dry, business-like professionalism and subdued team-first personalities from its athletes, a movement of self expression is spreading in the form of footwear.

Plenty of players rock custom cleats, but only a handful of people are responsible for their creations.

Two of those individuals are Marcus Rivero and Corey Pane. Rivero is a Miami resident who owns a wholesale used tire store that he started when he was 18. He boasts a bigger clientele of NFL athletes, one that has made his Instagram account a must-follow for sneakerheads and athletes alike.

Pane is an artist who lives in Connecticut, and just so happens to be friends with arguably the best wide receiver in football, Antonio Brown.

“It was just kind of a thing more like between friends,” Pane told SB Nation. “It kind of blew up into something we never really expected.”

Rivero and Pane have very different stories, motivations, and lives. Rivero has turned customizing sneakers into a lucrative venture. Pane is more intimate with the little work he takes on, since art is his lifelong passion.

One thing they have in common is that they both have the same effect on America’s most popular sports league.

* * *

Business never stops for Rivero, who spends his days working at his wholesale used tire store in Miami. Making customized cleats was never supposed to be in the cards for him.

It was Valentine’s Day of 2012 and Rivero had bought some sneakers for his then-girlfriend. He didn’t like the color, so he got some paint, and went to work. She posted them to Instagram, and that led friends and family to want their own customized sneakers. A month or two later, he heard from then-Miami Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll on Instagram, asking Rivero to customize his sneakers with a Statue of Liberty theme.

Another two months passed, and Rivero got a text message. It was Carroll.

“Hey listen, I got a project for you. Call me.”

Rivero called Carroll, who requested that he customize his game cleats.

“I remember I instantly told him ‘no,’” Rivero told SB Nation. “I was like, ‘Man, it’s different. You know with sneakers, it’s different. You walk and nobody’s going to step on you. You can pay attention to how you walk. With cleats, the last thing on your mind is gonna be this whole customization of your cleats.’”

“For seven days he called me,” Rivero recalled. “I told him no every day up until the last day.”

Eventually Rivero obliged, but didn’t charge Carroll for the cleats because he wasn’t sure how they would turn out. Carroll appreciated that, and told him, “I’ll tell you what, if this works out, I’m going to repay this favor to you.”

It worked out, and Carroll told Rivero that he would be sending him 12 pairs of cleats. Initially, Rivero believed that to be the returned favor. He customized the cleats, and when Rivero called Carroll to meet with him, Carroll said, “No, this is the favor. Mail them to this address.” Without searching the address, Rivero sent them.

Those 12 pairs went to the Miami Dolphins’ training facility. Ten of the pairs sold, and Carroll gave Rivero all the money. That night, Rivero had eight players call him wanting him to customize their cleats. It’s only exploded since then.

Now, he’s developed close personal relationships with dozens of NFL players, and it has grown to the point where he’ll go to Bali and Singapore with Colts cornerback Vontae Davis during the offseason. And players are offering to fly him out to their cities for customizations on a regular basis.

Rivero’s appeal has gotten so large that the NFL itself reached out to him because of its “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative in Week 13 this season. Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour all did as well.

According to Rivero, about 400-500 players signed up for “My Cause, My Cleats.” Rivero said because it was so fresh, nobody was in on it since it happened in the latter half of the season. Nike sent out a letter to every single athlete it sponsors, and all NFL teams, with five customizers on them. Rivero’s name was on the top of that list.

“Because of that, I had four teams reach out to me to do the whole team,” he said.

Rivero did the entire Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis Colts teams, as well as most of the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

“It was actually a really cool head-turner when the NFL was trying to be proactive about this type of thing.” Rivero said.

That same weekend, two Seattle Seahawks who he could only refer to as “big players” offered to fly him out to do their cleats. “The shoes that they had were so limited that they didn’t want to risk the shoe getting lost in transit,” Rivero said. “So they’d rather fly me out to do the work live so there’s no risk of losing the shoe.”

He’s been so busy painting cleats at times this season, he’s gone 72 hours straight without sleep. Rivero said, “I was surviving on soda and caffeine pills, but it was fun though.”

* * *

Corey Pane has always had a mind for art. He got very serious about it in high school, and started making album covers for his friends’ bands. Connections began to build, and since then he’s focused on paintings and murals.

Portraits are his main squeeze. Capturing expressions and emotions of people are one of this favorite things to do. He’ll also paint on anything. Random pieces of wood, a piece of metal he finds, anything. “I feel like it adds more character to the piece.”

“I just kinda try to do whatever different opportunities come across,” Pane said. “I never really think about a certain plan of anything I want to do.”

That’s where Antonio Brown comes in.

“That’s how the cleats came about,” Pane said. “They were just another thing that just came across.”

Pane and Brown have known each other for six years. Brown came across Pane’s artwork online when he was first coming into the league, and wanted a painting of him and his son.

After being drafted, he wanted Pane to meet him in Pittsburgh, where they had dinner, and have stayed in touch since. Pane does artwork for Brown — painting him, his kids, really any request Brown might have.

Corey Pane

Pane was in Pittsburgh before the season started. Brown wanted a way to express himself on the field, so he had Pane paint wristbands and cleats.

Brown gave Pane a pair of cleats from last season to test it out, and Brown wore them in the first game.

“I took it as another artistic opportunity, and treated it the same way I would as a painting,” he said. “For me, I’m more about being an artist and doing canvas paintings and all different murals and different types of stuff.”

Brown leaves it to Pane to come up with the ideas for the cleats. “He just lets me do whatever I want,” Pane said. “We might have a short conversation about different people that he might want to do a tribute to or different people that are important in his life, but he just kind of leaves it up to me to do whatever.”

Pane’s friendship with Brown makes it easier for him to get the message that Brown wants to get across with the cleats. “I’ve known him a while now, so I know what he’s into and what he’s going for,” Pane said.

He added that he would need to know more about a player if he were going to design his cleats, which is one of the reasons why Brown is one of just three players that he’s made cleats for.

A part of that, Pane mentioned, was getting the timing and placement of the sneakers right. The Pat Tillman tribute cleats Brown wore came on Veteran’s Day, and the Arnold Palmer cleats came shortly after the golf legend’s death.

“I was trying to be smart about where — almost like the NFL, if they had a fine or something they wanted to do, they couldn’t say no.”

Corey Pane

Pane has also done cleats for Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. For “My Cause My Cleats,” he made Shazier’s cleats for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. Shazier himself has alopecia. The toe of the right cleat was adorned with the hashtag #freetobeme.

Corey Pane

Pane’s only other client is Saints tight end Josh Hill.

“I’m not just a cleat guy, you know? That’s just another thing, but I’m just an artist,” he said.

“Hopefully with all the stuff that’s been coming off the cleats, I’m hoping that maybe people will see some of the other stuff. That’s more my thing.”

* * *

Fines are an unfortunate consequence of what Rivero and Pane provide for players. This season, six players have been fined for cleats worn in-game that the NFL didn’t approve of.

One of the more controversial pairs Rivero has made were DeSean Jackson’s cleats that were meant to raise awareness of “the senseless killings of both citizens and police.”

In his statement released by the team, Jackson said, “I just want to express my concern in a peaceful and productive way about issues that are currently impacting our country.”

Arguably the most buzz that a pair of Rivero’s cleats have ever drawn were worn by none other than Marshawn Lynch. Rivero posted the cleats on Instagram the Friday before the NFC Championship in January of 2015, and it created quite the stir. He heard from every national media outlet, including the NFL Players Association.

“It ended up backfiring on us only because the NFL knew what he was going to do before he did it,” Rivero said. It certainly did, as the NFL threatened to eject Lynch if he wore them in the game. So Lynch didn’t wear them during the game — instead, he donned them beforehand.

That was the birth of what’s now the common practice of “pregame cleats.”

The first pair of customized cleats Brown wore this season resembled a sky, detailed with clouds on them, and his number 84 on the toes. He received a fine for these, and since it happened in Week 1, the NFL kept an eye on Brown for the rest of the season.

Corey Pane

Pane and Brown don’t consider the ramifications of cleats. “Once we come up with an idea that we like, we’ll just go for it. We don’t really think about whether he’s gonna get fined for it or not.”

Pane added that Brown knew he would probably get fined for that pair of cleats.

After those, Pane said, “He didn’t really care about paying the fines too much, as long it was something cool that he could do to inspire people and inspire himself on the field.”

Brown did make sure that it wasn’t going to interfere with his status on the field, and he received a similar threat that Lynch faced back in 2015. Pane made Muhammad Ali tribute cleats, which the NFL then threatened to eject him if he wore them.

“Once they started saying they’d eject him from the games, then he didn’t want to risk taking it that far,” Pane said. “He would just wear them for pregame and just try to keep it cool that way.”

Brown likes to have his fun and express himself, but he doesn’t let it interfere with his team.

* * *

Just this week, Rivero made cleats for guys like Jason Jones, Cameron Wake, and Marqueis Gray of the Miami Dolphins, LaRoy Reynolds of the Falcons, and Orlando Scandrick of the Dallas Cowboys. There will be more players, including Jay Ajayi, Martellus Bennett, and Lamar Miller, who will be rocking his customs in the playoffs.

He’s had at least one player in the Super Bowl the past three seasons that he’s worked on their cleats. With at least one player on every playoff team, he’s guaranteed a fourth.

Pane initially said that he and Brown don’t have any specific ideas in place for the postseason. There’s been some ideas that have been put on the back burner that they haven’t gotten to yet, but they also want to keep the tributes coming.

With the Steelers taking on the Dolphins in the first round, Pane said, “I was thinking about doing another tribute to Jasper Howard.”

Howard was fatally stabbed while at UConn in an on-campus fight in 2009. He grew up in Miami like Brown, and the two knew each other. Pane said that Brown had wanted to do the tribute, but hadn’t yet discussed it with him for the playoffs.

Pane and Rivero have helped pioneer a new movement that lets NFL players make a statement with their cleats. They can raise awareness for a cause, pay tribute to somebody, or simply express themselves. It’s been a culture change in the NFL, one that it seems slowly but surely to be embracing.