Designer of custom cleats makes stories of NFL players come to life

DENVER, N.C. -- Ryan Bare is in the basement of his home putting the final touches on a pair of custom airbrushed cleats for Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. He is focused, ignoring the scurrying of his pitbull, Tessie, and English bulldog, George, on the hardwood floors above.

Sunday, when players and some coaches will wear custom cleats as a part of the NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats" initiative, is like Christmas for Bare because he gets to see the fruition of his work.

But this, he said, is his "Black Friday" as he rushes to fill the last orders.

"It's definitely been a little stressful trying to get so many out, meeting deadlines," Bare said.

Between 40 and 50 players and coaches across the NFL will wear a pair of cleats designed by Bare, who three years ago founded Sneaker Replay Customs out of his home about 30 miles north of Charlotte. Most of them will be members or former members of the Panthers (8-3), who face the New Orleans Saints (8-3) for the NFC South lead at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Bare's business began with a request by former Carolina safety Tre Boston to design a pair of cleats for pregame warmups and has snowballed through word of mouth.

But this is more than work for Bare, just as the cleats are more than an opportunity to be different for the players. This is about the personal stories that impact the lives of players, and Bare's ability to make those stories come to life.

"Yeah, they might be rough and tough on the field, but you see them behind closed doors or go to their house to meet up with them ... it's cool," Bare, 36, said.

Some stories are deeply personal, and they're shared on cleats more than one week during the season. Carolina defensive end Mario Addison had Bare design a pair this summer with the names and faces of six family members and friends who died since the start of the year.

Cornerback Daryl Worley, who grew up in Philadelphia, had Bare design cleats for Sunday featuring the words "Cease Fire PA." It was inspired by his friends and family members killed because of gun violence.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera will wear one purple camouflage cleat for his older brother, Mickey, who died of pancreatic cancer the day before the opening of training camp in 2015. The other is designed in traditional military camouflage colors for the USO of North Carolina and his father, a retired officer in the U.S. Army.

Rivera was so excited about the cleats that he snuck into the room where they were being stored for a sneak preview.

Davis' cleats represent his "Defending Dreams Foundation" that helps empower and educate children.

"It just shines light on all the good that we're doing," Davis said. "So much is being said and done and talked about with guys that make mistakes in the league. This allows players to go out and really highlight all the positives they're doing in the community."

'Wanting to be different'

Bare wasn't a star athlete growing up, but he did play sports, mostly baseball. He didn't have a background in graphic arts -- or art at all -- but he did have one in painting cleats.

This in part explains how a man who found himself out of a job when the family automotive business went under now is making custom cleats for millionaires.

"My mom would buy me a new pair of cleats, and I'd go get a $3 can of chrome spray paint and spray them down," Bare said. "She'd be upset, but at the same time I was always wanting to be different, wanting something other than what was plain or normal."

That's the motivation behind many of the players and their cleats. They just want to be different, whether they're promoting a cause or something else as Panthers quarterback Cam Newton began doing early in his career by wearing superhero-inspired cleats before games.

But the NFL -- often referred to as the No Fun League -- was strict when it came to cleats. Players were restricted to wearing cleats that featured the primary or a secondary color in their uniform.

Players who crossed the line were fined.

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was fined $18,231 last season for wearing wild multicolored cleats to honor the late Craig Sager. Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown was fined $6,076 for wearing a pair of custom blue and gold cleats.

In 2012, Newton began taking advantage of a rule that allowed players to wear different cleats up to 90 minutes before kickoff to feature many platforms for his Under Armour sponsor.

The league loosened up even more this year, allowing players to wear custom cleats during pregame up until warm-ups as long as they don't display any kind of logo other than league-sanctioned shoe brands, aren't deemed offensive and aren't used to express political views.

With an outcry from players wanting to use the cleats in games, the league in 2015 began looking into the "My Cause, My Cleats" program that kicked off a year ago. More than 800 players have signed on to participate this year.

So why not allow it year round?

"It's more impactful to rally players across the league around a singular weekend to showcase the worthy causes and initiatives," said Clare Graff, a member of the NFL's social responsibility team.

Rivera wouldn't mind if the league let players -- and coaches -- express themselves this way on a more regular basis.

"It's not just a platform for sports and entertainment," he said. "There are other things it can help bring attention to positively."

Bare calls this weekend the "bone" the NFL threw to players wanting to express themselves with custom cleats. He'd also like to see the league allow the cleats in games more than once a year, and not just because it's profitable for him.

"The league might not like a lot of them, but it's a fun way for the players to express their style or what they want to put out there," he said. "I know the guys definitely enjoy it and it's definitely fun to help create."

Cam's cleats

Bare doesn't design Newton's cleats, but he pays attention to them.

"They haven't really stood out that well to me like they have in the past," he said. "I don't know if he's decided to scale back or if it's an Under Armour thing, but as flashy as he likes to be, I'm sure he could stand to be a little flashier."

Most of Newton's cleats this season have had a theme based on the opponent or city he's in. There has been nothing as flashy as the foxtail cleats he wore before a game last season. They had a black-and-white zebra design with a splash of gold and a foxtail on the back of each.

The most outlandish cleat Newton has worn this year featured a pink feather in the side during October breast cancer awareness month.

Bare admits he "hasn't gone that far" with a design.

"But guys are getting flashier by the week these last couple of years," he said.

"You've got to prep it like you would [painting] a car. A lot of them you have to scuff them up, clean them down, remove any top coats, clear coats from the factory. It's more of a tedious process more than anything." Ryan Bare

Flashier means more expense and often more time consuming to make. Bare gives most players a starting point of $125 to customize a pair of cleats. It takes anywhere from eight to 12 hours to a couple of days to complete a pair.

And that doesn't include the time Bare spends with the player coming up with the design.

"You've got to prep it like you would [painting] a car," Bare said. "A lot of them you have to scuff them up, clean them down, remove any top coats, clear coats from the factory.

"It's more of a tedious process more than anything."

Big business

Bare wouldn't suggest somebody quit their day job to start designing cleats.

But he admits with more and more NFL players wearing custom cleats during warm-ups and for "My Cause, My Cleats" weekend, it's a profitable business.

Many do their work from home, as Bare does. Some, like Los Angeles-based Kickasso Kustoms -- a play on kicks (slang for shoes) and the artist Picasso -- have taken it to another level. Kickasso began painting cars and motorcycles. Now he paints everything from a $10,000 shoe to a $10 slipper.

His business, like Bare's, increased with the "My Cause, My Cleats" campaign. Beckham is his most high-profile client.

"The 'My Cause, My Cleats' has definitely helped out smaller-name guys," said Cleveland-based designer Eddie Santiago, who was inspired by the work of Kickasso. "It's helped the art culture as a whole really take off."

Bare is happy working on a smaller scale.

"But my mentality has always been I'd rather have Cam's whole offensive line than Cam," he said.

But high-profile names help the business. The exposure Bare gets from a pair of Christian McCaffrey cleats is more than he'd get from his blockers.

Paying the bills is important.

But so is telling stories, as is the trust Bare has built with players to tell their stories is important. That Addison trusted him enough to share the stories of those who lost their lives made a big impact on Bare.

"That he trusts me to take care of something that means that much to him, that's what makes it mean that much more to me," Bare said. "It's not a get-rich-quick type of profession. Just more for the love of it."