How Steelers have supported their favorite painter during pandemic

Artist creates amazing Big Ben painting with only his fingers (0:56)

Former college football player Cody Sabol shows off his speed painting skills by creating a picture of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. (0:56)

PITTSBURGH -- Artist Cody Sabol's phone lit up with a FaceTime call from a number he didn't recognize.

When he answered, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush's face filled his screen.

"Hey, Cody," Bush said, "what are you doing tomorrow?"

When the nation shut down in early March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sabol became one of many small-business owners to watch helplessly. The 25-year-old Pittsburgh-based artist makes almost all his income speed-painting at live events -- and he has an infant son along with a new mortgage payment for the house he and his wife just bought.

Suddenly the future was uncertain, and it was scary.

That changed when Bush extended an offer: Spend the next week transforming the walls of his basement -- and soon-to-be personal gym -- from plain cream to colorful murals that would remind Bush of his journey and motivate him as he worked out.

Sabol got started the next day. Over the next week, he and his younger brother Owen worked in Bush's basement. Sabol painted the intricate murals, while Owen, a freshman shortstop at NCAA Division II Seton Hill who had free time after his baseball season was canceled, painted yellow walls and black accent stripes.

By the end of the week, bold stripes of gold and black and maize and blue lined the walls of the stairway, nods to Bush's playing career at Michigan and in Pittsburgh. The word "undersized," in a drip graffiti style, is written on one wall, a nod to the critique that's followed Bush throughout his career. On another wall, a giant splash of yellow paint behind a mural of Bush in his Steelers uniform makes it look like he's bursting through the wall.

Though he hired him for only a week of work, Bush paid Sabol around $8,500, an amount equal to six weeks of his normal income.

"He doesn't really have a business, he's his own business, so I felt like I was helping him out," Bush said. "He just had a baby. I thought it was a good idea to put some money in his pocket."

Said Sabol: "Devin said he didn't have a budget for it and he just wanted to take care of us, and that's what he did. But he told me, 'You have to pay your brother.'"

Bush's custom basement was just the beginning of Sabol's work with Steelers players, who had used him in the past for painting cleats and other artwork. But in the five months since the lockdown began, Sabol has been working around the clock to deliver artwork to Steelers players, including Cameron Heyward, Steven Nelson, Zach Banner, Tyson Alualu and Benny Snell.

Without their orders, Sabol's life would have looked a lot different during the outbreak.

"I lost my entire salary -- 70% of what I did were those live events, and I would do these things on the side because athletes wanted them," Sabol said in June, after dropping off his latest painting for Banner. "So what I'm doing to make money to provide for my family was nothing but a side hustle for so long. That's a testament to the athletes rallying.

"Those guys are the reason why I still have a house."

Sabol discovered his passion for painting by accident. And getting connected with the Steelers? That was nothing short of pure luck.

An oft-injured college football player at Kentucky Christian, an NAIA program in Grayson, Kentucky, Sabol painted in his free time during his junior year. He started doing it after practice while his friends in an indie rock band jammed, and soon he felt the music envelop him. His strokes sped up and became more performative.

"I would see people on YouTube [speed-painting] and I thought, 'I could do that,'" Sabol said. "I wanted to add an element to this little band. Like, what if we put a live painting into our shows?"

It wasn't long before he was touring with his friends' band, Caleb Jones and the Family Band, playing at venues in Lexington, Louisville, Huntington and West Virginia. He painted things like a monkey in a spacesuit and Yoda wearing DJ headphones and Ray-Ban sunglasses.

When he graduated from college in 2017, Sabol moved back to North Huntingdon, a Pittsburgh suburb, and stayed involved with art as he interned at Pitt as a campus minister. He interned for former Steeler-turned-artist Baron Batch, and for fun he started painting canvas works of athletes backed by colorful graffiti, along with other pop culture and sports-figure pieces -- most featuring Pittsburgh professional athletes such as Penguins star Sidney Crosby and Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

But he still had a passion for performing.

In 2017, Sabol, a lifelong Pittsburgh sports fan, saw an advertisement for a charity event hosted by former Pirates infielder Josh Harrison. Sabol sent a message to the event's ticketing email account offering to perform for free.

"I just wanted to get in the place," Sabol said. "I didn't expect to hear back. I heard back in like five minutes."

Not only did the event organizer want Sabol to perform at Harrison's event, he was planning a similar outing for Heyward. He booked Sabol for that too.

For Heyward's event, Sabol decided to recreate a photo of the defensive lineman and his late father, former NFL player Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. It was Sabol's first attempt at a speed painting of a Steelers player, and he practiced more than a dozen times, painting the image, painting over it in black and painting it again, before he did it live.

"My foundation was surprising me with a photo we were going to auction off," Heyward said. "I didn't think anything of it. I had no clue what to expect. So when he came, he actually made a big mural of me and my dad. I was like, 'This is awesome.'"

Heyward's wife, Allie, outbid everyone for the piece when she saw how the painting moved her husband. Now it hangs in their house, and Sabol and Heyward have developed a close friendship.

"When you meet Cody, you see how he does such great work, and he's such an awesome person," Heyward said. "You hear about his story of how he fell into painting and kind of took off with it. You see his work and it's like, 'Geez, Cody, now I've got to find more room for paintings.'"

In the three years since Sabol and Heyward connected, the artist has gotten dozens of messages from unfamiliar numbers on his phone.

The rush of excitement he gets from reading one, though, never gets old.

"Hey Cody," one read last year, "it's Joe Haden. I got your number from Cam."

"That was, like, the coolest text I've ever gotten in my life," Sabol said of the message from the Steelers cornerback. "My heart stopped for a second. I was like, 'This is not real.' There is nobody else on this earth with more swag than Joe Haden. I want him to want one of my paintings."

And Haden did.

On his way out of the facility last season, Haden noticed a painting Sabol did of Smith-Schuster. Receptionist Shaw Sunder displayed the piece in the lobby, something he did frequently when Sabol dropped off completed commissions.

"I think I've got to start paying him for the way he marketed me," Sabol said of Sunder. "He probably kept me from going under in COVID because of how he helped me all those years."

With the vibrant colors of a graffiti background surrounding Smith-Schuster and a giant halo encircling his head, Haden couldn't help but stop and stare. He knew then he wanted something like that for himself.

A couple of weeks later, Heyward gave Sabol's number to Haden, and now Haden has a halo graffiti painting of his own hanging between the bar and movie theater in his basement.

"It's the focal point of the basement," Haden said. "It's a standout piece. ... That art that he does, it looks amazing. But the details of school, what you're about, what you're from, what you really love, your passions. You don't even tell him anything about you, he just instantly knows. When you see it, it's like, 'Man, that's my stuff.' It makes you have a connection with the art."

Pittsburgh artist shares story behind Roethlisberger speed painting

Pittsburgh artist Cody Sabol shares the process of selecting an image and how long it took to complete his paining of Ben Roethlisberger.

One of Sabol's trademarks is the many nods to a player's past and present he weaves into his works. Sometimes players give him a list of things they want included in the painting, which can cost up to $3,500. Other times they give him free rein. To create a painting from vague instructions, Sabol does hours of research, combing through Wikipedia pages and social media to learn everything he can about a player. Area codes. Birthdays of kids. School mascots. Twitter handles. Names of significant others.

Then he makes that knowledge come to life in the eye-catching shapes of the graffiti surrounding the player. And he hides easter eggs of his own, sometimes including scripture meaningful to his own life if the player is religious. In a painting for Steelers safety Jordan Dangerfield, Sabol included his own favorite verse, Psalm 91.

When Dangerfield noticed it, he was stunned.

"He was like, 'Was that on the list of stuff I gave you?'" Sabol said. "I said, 'Nah, that's my favorite thing.' He pointed to the same exact passage that's in the back of his locker. The only Bible passage he has up is Psalm 91."

It's those details that draw the players from the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins to Sabol and keep them seeking out his work.

Sabol recalled Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon telling him after he created a pair of cleats and a painting of Taillon taking the mound, "What you do for cleats, just the artwork that you do for us, it helps us be able to say that we're more than just a football player or a baseball player or an athlete. You help us show people who we are outside of sports."

The process of creating those custom cleats goes against everything he's known for in his standalone art. Painting one set of cleats can take a couple of days, and he has to be precise in the design and execution.

"My art style isn't careful," he said. "So teaching myself the discipline to be more detail-oriented has been kind of tough."

In the days before his son was born in December, Sabol was working around the clock to finish up the dozens of shoes given to him ahead of the Steelers' road trip to Arizona during the NFL's annual My Cause, My Cleats games. He delivered the final batch just before the team bus took off for the airport.

A week later, he was trying to finish up a couple of pairs of cleats for Haden ahead of the Sunday night game against the Buffalo Bills. But his son had other ideas. His wife went into labor and Sabol had to tell Haden he wasn't going to be able to finish the shoes.

"I almost brought them to the hospital with me," he said with a laugh.

"There's a reason why a bunch of the guys on the team really seek his art and ask him to personalize it for us and bring it out. Because a picture says a thousand words, but a painting slows it down and you get to appreciate it." Zach Banner on Cody Sabol

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have any of Sabol's cleats, but he was gifted a painting for his 38th birthday earlier this year. Sabol's most recent commission went to Banner, who picked up his 5-by-4 painting from Sabol on a gray, humid morning in June on a Mount Washington overlook on Grandview Avenue.

With more care than the green Hulk fist smashing through a wall on his shirt, Banner tore off the red and blue wrapping paper.

"Unreal," Banner said, standing back to marvel at the painting. "So dope."

Sabol recorded a video of the unveiling for his YouTube channel and then approached the painting to explain the details he included in Banner's commission.

It started with an image from the 2019 Steelers-Browns game at Heinz Field, with Banner standing across from former Southern Cal teammate and current Browns defensive end Porter Gustin. Banner's arms are raised to settle the line and quiet the crowd. He has a sharp, determined look on his face.

The players near him on the field are blurred slightly, and the crowd in the stands behind him is even more out of focus. To achieve the different degrees of blur, Sabol channeled his speed painting, using his fingers to push and layer different paint together on the background.

He even included a fuzzy "Yinzer Mob" banner on the stadium's giant spiral ramp, along with another, reading "72 is eligible," hanging from the upper spiral.

Banner is in awe of Sabol's latest work. It's his third, adding to the collection he began after seeing a giant piece commissioned by former Steelers lineman Ramon Foster.

"The dude is just good at what he does," Banner said. "He's also a really good guy, too. There's a reason why a bunch of the guys on the team really seek his art and ask him to personalize it for us and bring it out. Because a picture says a thousand words, but a painting slows it down and you get to appreciate it.

"When you have stuff like this around the house, it just inspires you to keep getting more shots for him to paint."