Uni Watch: The canvas of the cleat

LeSean McCoy was the big break Fabes Sole High needed for their custom cleats to hit it big. Fabes Sole High

By now it's a weekly routine: Big NFL stars like Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton take the field wearing custom-designed cleats.

But the big names aren't the only ones wearing the custom footwear. A growing number of players are wearing one-of-a-kind cleats -- usually just in pregame warm-ups but sometimes in games -- and many of them are getting the customized gear from an unlikely source: a sneaker shop in Buffalo, whose co-owner and cleat artist have ridden their custom designs all the way to a partnership with Nike.

The shop, which is called Fabes Sole High, opened in 2014. "We're big on exclusivity -- things that are expensive and rare, things you wouldn't find at Foot Locker," said the shop's co-owner, Napoleon "Polo" Kerber, who's 26. "Athletes would come to our store for that, so we already had that customer base."

Shortly after the shop opened, Kerber met up with a 31-year-old local artist named Nicholas Avery, who got into customized footwear by painting his own sneakers for fun. "A couple of designs that I'd done were displayed at a different shop in Buffalo," he said. "I wasn't really affiliated with them, but they just thought it would be cool to showcase those designs. Then, I started getting requests, and I ran into the guys at Fabes Sole High and we talked about working together."

Things started slowly. The first athlete to request customized cleats from them was a college player -- Mississippi quarterback Chad Kelly, who's from Buffalo and requested a custom pair last year. But their big break came when Bills running back LeSean McCoy asked for a pair. "Then, other Bills players saw what he was wearing and wanted their own pairs, and then they'd tell their friends on other teams, guys they went to college with, and it kind of took off from there," Kerber said.

Things have picked up this season, as word of Fabes Sole High has spread. Players who've worn the shop's custom designs have included the following:

Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain. Avery turned the Nike swoosh on McCain's cleats into a stylized dolphin.

Colts wide receiver Donte Moncrief. Avery again modified the Nike logo, this time taking the subtle approach of adding white dots to the swoosh to mimic the similar markings on the Colts' horseshoe logo.

Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins got a pair of NASA-themed cleats, complete the NASA logo on the insole and moon craters on the exterior.

Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard. Where's Waldo? Right on Shepard's cleats.

Bills cornerback Kevon Seymour. Seymour went with a Sonic the Hedgehog theme for his custom cleats.

Other Fabes Sole High customers have included Titans tight end Delanie Walker and Bills quarterback Cardale Jones, among others. The NFL often frowns on custom footwear being worn in games, so most of these players have worn their Fabes Sole High cleats only for pregame activities. But some have managed to get them into games. "The guys who police this stuff for the league, they'll tell the players during pregame, 'You can't wear that during the game,' but they usually don't check after that," Kerber said. "So some guys, like Cardale Jones, have switched to regular cleats for the first half and then worn their custom designs during the second half."

Kerber handles most of the communication with the players, but Avery executes the designs. "I'll start by roughing the shoe up with a sanding pen, so it'll hold the paint better," Avery said. "Then I use what's called an adhesion promoter, which is usually used for automotive paint jobs, which also helps the paint to adhere. I use Angelus paint, which is designed for leather. It's made to flex without cracking. I mostly use an airbrush, but I'll use do small details by hand. And then I use a heat gun to cook the paint onto the shoe." The whole process takes about 20 hours. The player usually provides the cleats, and the price for the paint job is generally in the $400 range.

Avery said the players usually leave the designs up to him. "They might specify what color they want, but otherwise they leave it pretty wide open for me to do whatever I think looks good, so there's a surprise factor," he said. "I don't do any mock-ups or preliminary versions for their approval because the designs usually evolve as I'm working on them, so the final version would look different anyway."

But a few players have taken a more active role in the design concepts for their cleats. Cardinals cornerback Marcus Cooper, for example, requested a pair that celebrated the upcoming birth of his daughter, so he provided Avery with photos to use, including a sonogram image.

Players aren't the only ones who've taken notice of Fabes Sole High's work. With the NFL allowing players to wear custom cleats to support charitable endeavors during the games played on Dec. 4, Kerber and Avery have temporarily relocated to Oregon, where they've been working with Nike to create footwear designs for many of the players affiliated with the sportswear giant. ESPN.com will provide previews of those designs soon -- stay tuned.

Paul Lukas writes about uniforms for ESPN.com. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.