Georgia artist goes big for Pro Bowl cleats of Atlanta Falcons rookie Kyle Pitts

Curtis Booth painted a pair of custom cleats for Kyle Pitts for his Pro Bowl debut. Courtesy of Curtis Booth

The conversation started casually, as it usually does whenever Curtis Booth inquires about whether a player wants his cleats to look like more than what comes out of the box from Nike, Adidas or UnderArmour.

Kenny Osuwah, assistant equipment manager for the Atlanta Falcons, reaches out. Or sometimes Booth hears from the player himself. Then, as the relationship is formed, Booth will reach out on his own. Which is how the idea came up to have what Falcons rookie tight end Kyle Pitts has on his feet at the Pro Bowl on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) look like anything but a normal pair of shoes.

What you'll see on Pitts' size 15s came from the mind of a 30-year-old working in a converted sun room turned office in his Lithonia, Georgia, home with his 2-year-old goldendoodle, Jaxson, looking on.

How Booth ended up here -- as the main shoe artist of the Falcons -- was a matter of happenstance.

He had noticed the Falcons' social media team had posted on Instagram about players representing their area codes. One player mentioned the 252 and looked familiar. He Googled him and realized he'd taken a picture with a friend of his.

The friend? The sister of former Atlanta receiver Justin Hardy. He reached out. Offered to do some cleats for him gratis. If Hardy liked his work, Booth would love to work with him. Hardy did. The message spread.

And now it's a main part of Booth's $250 a pair gig. The footwear from the Falcons' My Cause, My Cleats campaign has often been Booth's work. As has every pair of cleats running back Cordarrelle Patterson had made this season --from the ones campaigning for a new contract to raising awareness for infant loss.

For Pitts, whom Booth first worked with on a pair of Florida Gators cleats in the first month of the season, the theme is simple. Booth said Pitts left the brainstorming up to him and told him to "do whatever." So he did.

Pitts' rookie season was one of the best ever at his position -- even if it sometimes doesn't feel like it because he scored one touchdown. But he's the first rookie tight end in 60 years to eclipse 1,000 yards (1,026), and his 68 receptions are third all-time behind Keith Jackson and Jeremy Shockey. He's the first rookie tight end since Shockey to make the Pro Bowl -- and that was in 2002.

He set the Falcons' record for rookie receiving yards, passing Julio Jones, and the team's overall record for single-season receiving yards by a tight end, eclipsing Tony Gonzalez.

"It was an OK start," Pitts said. "I feel like there's a lot more to work on, achieve. I think it's just the first step."

But those steps are what Booth focused on as he created Pitts' shoes. He wanted Pitts' feet -- which were so integral to his first-season success -- to display the message of how good his rookie year was, sort of a commemoration of what he accomplished splashed across his Jordan 5s.

"He's the second [rookie] tight end ever to reach the 1,000-yard milestone, so I know I'm going to put that on there," Booth said. "And maybe a couple stats and some Falcons logos, also. Still brainstorming, maybe have one cleat look completely different than the other cleat.

"But rookie things, definitely."

Two weeks ago, Booth was in the brainstorming process, the first part of the creative painted journey from concept to creation -- something the player didn't see until he received the shoes just before he left for Las Vegas.

This isn't as simple as putting some paint on a shoe and going with it. This is an hours-long process for each pair of shoes Booth works on.

It's a process Booth has streamlined over the past three years, one self-taught from what he calls YouTube University. All of this happened so randomly -- how the psychology major at North Carolina Central who wanted to become a forensic psychologist ended up doing this instead. He never imagined this in college, when his boredom and scrolling on Instagram took him to WalMart and he painted a pair of Jordan 1s pink.

He wore them to class. Because he knew nothing about the custom shoe business at the time, the color ran. It looked like he was wearing a pink-spotted cow. But classmates were still intrigued. This was years before it became his full-time job, before he locked in with the Falcons and became their cleat creator.

With Pitts' shoes, because he had time, it began with brainstorming sessions. Knowing he was working with a six-panel Jordan 5 -- the more panels available, the more creative he can be -- Booth then takes an all-white silhouette and puts it in a photoshop mockup on his computer.

It's there he messes around with different fonts and sizes to get an idea of what could go where and the type of space he might need for each idea to pop to life.

"I usually go on Instagram a lot and post my mockups and have people vote on which one they like best, and the highest vote, I'll go with that," Booth said. "A lot of times I'll do that to make sure we're on the same page. I'll know what I want to do with it, so I'll go post a different mockup to see if people are seeing the same thing that I see.

"That helps me out a lot because it's like that second opinion, like definitely do that. Because otherwise, I'm thinking in the back of my head, 'Ahh, should I do this or that?'"

Booth learned from experience to edit who can see the mockups in his stories -- often blocking his clients so as not to spoil the surprise. Sometimes screenshots have leaked, a hazard of social media and a lesson Booth learned.

Design done, the real work starts. Each shoe has to be specifically prepped. Booth starts by taping the soles of cleats -- they are unable to be painted -- and then takes acetone, places it on a pad and scrubs down each shoe to take off the clear, unseen sealer on the top of each cleat. This will keep the paint from running and sliding off the shoe or cracking once it's put on.

"The reason for that is to open up, I say to open up the pores a little bit," Booth said. "To give the paint something to stick on to."

Once the initial gloss is gone, Booth can start painting. He'll add an adhesion promoter to the shoe to add a layer and give the paint another opportunity to stick to the shoe. If he's doing a detailed design, like a logo or a cartoon character or stenciled writing -- like for Pitts' shoe -- he'll print out stencils and lay those down while the shoe is still fully white.

Then he'll add a base coat of paint -- usually white or gray depending on the colors he's working with both on the shoe and the design -- and let it dry. Then he'll start painting in the detailed design and stencils. Finished there, he'll go back to do touchups just in case any of the paint bled into another area of the shoe.

"I do my outlining last because that makes the design pop," Booth said. "Pretty much that important step in the prep. That's the important step because football players, they are pretty rough on sneakers. They are running and jumping and sliding and tackling and everything and the worst that happens is the paint comes off.

"And as an artist, you don't want that to happen, because that kind of tells you the quality of work isn't there."

Booth is meticulous with each pair. When he's done painting and likes the work of the shoe, he'll seal it again -- much like what was initially on the shoe that he scrubbed off. He first uses a scratch-resistant sealer, again protecting his work from the realities of football. Then, he'll use either a glossy or matte finisher depending on the look he's going for.

The average time it takes on a shoe, from brainstorm to completion, is around eight to 10 hours. For some of Patterson's work, it took 15. For Pitts' shoe, he allotted 20 hours.

"I really want to perfect that design on there," Booth said. "And I want him to really stand out at the Pro Bowl."

This isn't the first time Pitts has tried to show some creativity during his rookie season. His request for a change to old Florida Gators cleats he had early in the season kickstarted the relationship with Booth.

And then there's something else -- something he had every game but didn't always get noticed: The design on his hands.

When Pitts signed with Jordan Brand -- the cleats he wears -- one of the things they asked him about was if he wanted to help design anything else. Pitts decided he had interest in helping to create a unique pair of gloves just for him.

And what he ended up going with each game this year had one meaning -- even if it ended up looking like another.

"With the eight in the middle, that was just one of the designs," Pitts said. "I didn't think of it as a bullseye until I had seen it and seen the colors and it was pretty cool. I didn't think of that to signify anything."

But for much of the season, it kind of did. Pitts became Matt Ryan's top target in the 2021 season after the team traded Julio Jones to Tennessee and Calvin Ridley left the team on Halloween to deal with personal issues.

The rookie drafted to be one of the options became the top option. And the gloves became a place for Ryan to potentially look over and over again.

When Pitts saw the design, he liked it, but didn't think it would receive any attention, because "they are just gloves." But they are more than that, too. They have a cachet to them, part of why he doesn't give them away after games.

Instead, Pitts said he keeps them in a bag -- as of December, he wasn't sure if he was going to do anything with them -- but because they are Jordan brand, he knows they have value. They have value, too, because they are his and were part of a history-making first season in Atlanta.

When Pitts is at the Pro Bowl this weekend, he'll have custom designs from his hands all the way down to his feet.