TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray first saw the trend of custom thigh pads spread through the NFL, he wasn't interested in being another player making a fashion statement.
He was a traditionalist of sorts, preferring the regular, plain, nondescript thigh pads that are a standard part of football uniforms and became required by the NFL in 2013.
Then something changed in Murray.
"I decided to give it a shot," Murray said.
He reached out to Brian Gudalis -- the owner of treDCAL, the company that makes those custom thigh pads -- through Instagram and asked if he could get a pair. They talked through a few ideas and settled on three: the No. 1, Murray's personal "KM" logo and the face of Bruce Lee. The first two wouldn't be a problem to produce, but Gudalis knew Lee's image was going to be difficult to pull off. Complex images like that don't always show clear enough through football pants, Gudalis said, but he tried anyway. It worked. The image of Lee can be seen clearly through the Cardinals' white pants, giving Murray some of the most striking thigh pads in a league full of them.
"I think it's a dope idea," Murray said. "You look around the league, everybody has got different designs, whether it be their own or whatever. I think it's pretty cool."
Murray is one of 360 current players around the NFL who wear Gudalis' thigh pads, joining the likes of Jalen Ramsey, Tyreek Hill, Saquon Barkley, Mike Evans, Ja'Marr Chase, Micah Parsons, Justin Reid, Nick Bosa, Jaylen Waddle, Justin Jefferson and Davante Adams, Gudalis said. The NFL doesn't have an issue with players wearing custom thigh pads, according to a league spokesperson.
More than 600 players have worn them since 2017, including half the players in Super Bowl LV and 38 players in Super Bowl LIV, Gudalis said. They're gaining in popularity. New England Patriots defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington bought pairs for all of his linemen.
At least nine college football teams have bought pads for their entire teams -- Tennessee, Florida State, Boston College, Penn State, Ole Miss, Michigan State, Michigan, Boise State and Kentucky -- with dozens of individual players wearing them, Gudalis said. At least 25 Oklahoma players wear them.
They've become a way for players to share their brand as much as they've become a fashion statement.
"When you took a picture, people are looking directly at your pads," said Tennessee Titans linebacker Bud Dupree, who was the first player to wear the thigh pads when he was at the University of Kentucky. "I still got pictures on my Instagram when I had my pads. I can pull it up and I still have pictures on my Instagram with my pads in, and it was a strong feeling, man."
Numbers, team logos and personal logos are showing up weekly under football pants. Each team logo is slightly different than the official logo so as to not infringe on trademarks and copyrights. But the logos are also close enough that it's hard to tell.
Gudalis' DMs are full of requests from NFL and college players asking for a pair. Some want them for free, but most offer to pay. Those who want a complementary pair are usually college players who try the old, "Do you know who I play for?" line but don't realize that treDCAL has a client list full of NFL players with hundreds of thousands of followers or, in the case of Murray and a select few, millions. Gudalis, though, understands he's running a business, and any exposure helps. If an NFL player with, say, 1.5 million or 2 million followers inquires about a pair of pads, he'll usually get them for free.
"Kyler, though, he reaches out and is as nice as could be," Gudalis said. "I mean, just respectful, polite, and he probably didn't even know at the time I'm old enough to be his dad. And I'm 48, by the way. He probably didn't realize that but because these guys, you know, I can tell by the way they're talking to me they don't know how old I am. I can tell it, but Kyler was great."
The hardest part about Murray's Lee design was designing the martial arts master in a way that he would be recognizable through the pants. To do that, Gudalis taught himself AutoCAD.
A complete custom pair ranges from $27 to $75, a pair with just numbers ranges from $35 to $40 and a pair with a cross on it is $27.
TreDCAL became profitable in July after starting in 2013. It's become a niche item in the sports equipment world, but that didn't stop the TV show "Shark Tank" from requesting a video submission. Gudalis doesn't think his thigh pads are a "Shark Tank" product, but "it's always flattering when that happens."
And it all came to Gudalis during a middle school football practice in the late 1990s. He was an elementary school gym teacher and coaching after school. During one practice, he wondered to himself why most thigh pads have three ridges instead of being flat, when they could have a number on them. The idea stuck, but Gudalis filed it away for later.
Fast forward almost 15 years, it's 2013, and he's an attorney in Lexington, Kentucky, billing hours, grinding away working on litigation and civil defense cases. He was sitting in his office one night when the idea of the custom thigh pads resurfaced. He went to Michael's and bought a knife and some foam, then started cutting out images. The first was a football. He put it under his son's baseball pants -- because he didn't play football.
"It popped," Gudalis said. "That football just popped through there and I thought, 'OK, I'm onto something.'"
From then on, he and his wife sat in their kitchen until 3 or 4 a.m. every day, cutting out foam.
A picture of that first one made its way to the University of Kentucky, which liked Gudalis' idea.
Dupree, who was a senior at the time, ended up being the first player to ever wear one, but at the time, they weren't the complete thigh pad. They were just decals that stuck onto existing pads. On one leg was the number "2," and on the other was the "UK" logo. Every few weeks, Gudalis sent Dupree fresh decals because they'd get beat up during practice and games.
"At that time, just those small pads made me excited just to put my pants on so the other guys can see it," Dupree said. "It started with that, man. A lot of other guys were like, 'Where you get those pads from?'"
The Kentucky equipment managers were skeptical of the pads at first, but once Dupree started wearing them, they were good with it.
Still, Gudalis had no idea if they would catch on. Then a couple weeks later, Michigan State placed an order. Then Penn State. Then Ole Miss. By the end of the first year, about nine schools had outfitted their teams with Gudalis' pads.
"That's exciting for me," Dupree said. "I'll be able to be tell my kids, 'Man, you see the company right here? I was the first person to wear it. I'm excited for him, his business and his family."
By 2019, Gudalis was replicating the standard thigh pad that had been in football forever, and his business started increasing. For the last nine years, treDCAL has occupied a large part of Gudalis' head. He still practices law, and his family, which started helping him make the pads and decals in 2013, still helps him.
"You see these things on Sunday, I probably made them sitting in front of my TV at home in my living room, where my wife and I are watching our television shows -- 'Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' or something like that, putting them together," Gudalis said. "It's kind of what we do."