IS THERE A REAL CLEAT MOVEMENT SWEEPING THE NFL?
"Do 'Cleat Heads' exist? Stop trying to make it a thing. Ask people who really know."
That's what I've been telling myself for the majority of the 2015 regular season. Basketball players have their footwear choices chronicled online and in print in great detail. But why is nobody talking about what professional players have on their feet?
"I don't think the cleat game, that phase, will ever really hit," said an expert on the subject in the San Francisco 49ers locker room. "A 'Sneaker Head' in my opinion is a guy who likes all types of shoes and they have some collectibles. We have to wear the cleats. It's not like you get a pair of cleats and you keep 'em in your locker. You can collect your cleats, but I don't think a 'Cleat Head' will eventually rise."
That somebody was 10-year veteran safety Antoine Bethea, an aficionado of all things footwear both on and off the field.
"When I first got into the league, it was, 'wear whatever cleats they give to you and try to find something that was comfortable,'" Bethea said. "As time went on, you saw guys trying to create a statement for themselves. The league is very traditional in a lot of ways with uniforms and how your socks have to be – what you can and cannot wear. So I guess the only thing you can kind of do to separate yourself from everybody else is to do something special with your cleats. Guys want to do a little something with their cleats, and I've fallen into it. At the end of the day, you find things that are comfortable for yourself."
So there goes my original story before it's even written. I guess it's time for an audible.
When it comes to my job, writing and reporting for the Niners, a sneaker fan such as myself can't help but notice when someone brings out a classic pair of Jordans for a road trip, or even has a new colorway of Nike Huaraches in the locker room. I tend to notice these things, and it's that perspective that often helps when covering a sports beat.
But when it comes to football cleats, my eight seasons of NFL employment have taught me that football footwear is on the rise. The days of black and white basic looks are on the way out. The cleat landscape in 2015 offers variety and is rooted in personal expression (within the rules, of course, Roger).
When I pitched this story idea to a co-worker, I was asked, "Isn't your story about guys doing crazy things with their cleats?"
Admittedly, I initially thought it would be something along those lines. Nope. I was wrong.
After speaking to Steve Urbaniak, the team's equipment manager, who has double my years of experience with the franchise, I now know that there's a lot more to the choices players prefer.
Substance outweighs style. Comfort dominates coolness.
"Guys are very particular about their feet, because that's their money maker," Urbaniak told me in his office early in December. "So we start out with foot measurements. Length of foot – shoe size – arch length and width – how wide you should go? – wide shoe or narrow shoe? We look at the positon, and we decide if we should use low cut or a 3/4- length (hybrid) cleat for skill players. And it goes from there."
Most people enjoy shopping for shoes. For NFL players, shopping is much different. Representatives from the three approved equipment providers (Nike, Under Armour and Adidas) educate the equipment staff on upcoming styles and trends within the industry. Then it's the players' turns. Reps show them new models and inform them on what makes sense for their body types. Players with medical needs can get shoes custom fitted. In some cases, a wider plate can be inserted to accommodate the fifth metatarsal bone, a common foot injury for NFL players and one that ended the rookie season for 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward.
"The offseason is my trial-and-error period," second-year cornerback Dontae Johnson said. "In training camp, I usually go for comfort by using the shoes I liked in the previous months. Then I try to get them in the right color schemes for the season."
To give you an idea of the volume of options, the Niners have an estimated 47 members of their 53-man roster under shoe contracts, which means the team has 5,000 cleats readily available at any given time. The cleat options go as far back as three years and there are nearly 40 types of models available for the roster. When the cleats are discarded, the used pairs get donated to the player's high schools and to local schools in the Bay Area.
Free safety Eric Reid prefers a stiff new pair of Under Armour cleats for each game. Long snapper Kyle Nelson, goes the other route. He only wears broken-in cleats on gameday like the lightest model available, Nike's Untouchable Vapors. Or if you're Phil Dawson, you've purchased 100 discontinued Nike Tiempo soccer boots to keep your footwear consistent.
Nike is the most popular in San Francisco's locker room with 12 new styles being introduced for the '15 campaign. The Nike Vapor Carbon series remains the most sought-after cleat series on the squad because its lighter design elements help skill players perform faster on the field. Guys like cornerback Kenneth Acker and outside linebacker Eli Harold vow that it's the best cleat in the game, and they'll even wear older models of the Vapor Carbon series because of their experiences with the VC series dating back in their college and high school careers.
Urbaniak's equipment staff goes through hundreds of cleats, which range in size 10 (Ward) to size 18 (rookie tackle Trent Brown). Then it gets into the tougher choices of choosing molded over screw-in cleats. On the road, some players will bring a minimum of three cleats, two molded pairs and a screw-in option for bad-weather games.
Take a look at what cleats the San Francisco 49ers rock on the practice field and on gameday.
According to Urbaniak, this decision is always crucial. In a Week 9 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, linebacker Ahmad Brooks was struggling to plant and turn up the field on his edge-rushes. Urbaniak suggested that Brooks switched from molded to screw-in cleats, which in turn, allowed the nine-year pro to better hold the edge for the rest of the game.
"It's huge," Urbaniak said of the decisions players have to make before a game. "Everyone wants to wear the cool-looking shoes until you slip. As soon you slip, the coaches turn to us and ask, 'Why did he slip?' We have to get the guys in the right cleats."
Another example of important cleat choices involves Jarryd Hayne. The 27-year-old Australian rugby league import, who just made his first NFL start in Week 16, is one of the most particular players about his footwear. But after a close inspection by the team's equipment staff, Hayne learned that the measurements he came to accept over the years were off.
"He's very in tune with his shoes," Urbaniak said of the international star, who was signed to an Under Armour endorsement contract prior to his first NFL season. "(But) he never realized he had two different sized feet until we measured him. They (were) off by a half size."
So there's the 411 on the performance side. The style side, has really evolved in recent seasons, too. Urbaniak said the trend began with college teams looking to one-up each other with flashy designs. Once the uniforms were upgraded, the shoes had to match. Soon after, Nike acquired the rights to be the NFL's official uniform provider in 2012 and a 50/50 colorway option was approved for each club.
For the Niners, that meant the era of red-and-gold cleats was on.
On any given Sunday, you'll see social media posts about players customizing their cleats for pregame warmups and some even put themselves at risk for potential fines on gameday. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has worn Superman and holiday-inspired Under Armour cleats for warmups. Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown recently wore cleats with Christmas lights* *painted on a pair of his Nike Alpha Pro 3/4s. The Niners, too, are no stranger to the custom cleats. The key here is to make sure the colors fall within league guidelines of using a cleat with the team's predominant color (Black for the Niners) or the team's 50/50 colorway option (Red/Gold for SF). Urbaniak recently broke out his shoe-painting kit to add a few more red strokes to a player's mostly-white cleats to make sure they fit within the NFL's guidelines.
That doesn't mean the careful customization from Nike ID lettering to air-brushed paint jobs will stop.
"Sometimes you just notice them," Torrey Smith said. "You'll be looking around and you see someone and say, 'They've got some heat on.' And the guys will be like, 'Did you see so-and-so's cleats?' … Guys are getting creative."
The choices are made to reflect individuality, yes, but they can also be used to make statements. During certain times of the year like the NFL's Breast Cancer Awareness and Military Appreciation months, players will show their support with their cleats. For Smith, customization is a way for the wideout to honor the life of his brother, Tevin Chris Jones, who passed away in September of 2012. Smith donned low-cut Under Armour cleats with "R.I.P. Lil' Chris" written out on the outer heel of his left foot in a Week 3 game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Teammates point to linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who ironically used to work at a Foot Locker, as the Niners player with the most variance in his cleats on the practice field. Others called out Garrett Celek as someone who is teased for having the most simplistic footwear. In fact, teammates hung his black and white cleats from his locker as a prank for his "most basic" look. "They look like old people's shoes," a teammate laughed. "I feel like he doesn't care about the flashiness."
But others do. Even offensive linemen, like Brown, whose feet were so big growing up that he hasn't purchased shoes in a store since the sixth grade. The seventh-round draft pick, however, appreciates how Nike has given more options to men of his size.
"I'm glad the brands are trying to get more stylish for the linemen," Brown said. "We like to look good, too."
So there you have it.
Whether you're a kicker or punter, pass-rusher or pass-catcher, you're particular about your footwear for a number of reasons.
But leave it to the long snapper to provide the summation of where "The Cleat Movement" has gone and where it is headed.
"Some guys want to stand out, which is fine," Nelson said. "Some people want to push the envelope and the NFL is always looking to making sure we maintain the uniform, which is fine. They're doing their job.
"I think the culture has changed from back in the day, it was all about playing hard. It doesn't matter how you look, it was about how you played. Now, it's kind of like a 'Look good, feel good, play good' sort of thing. I had a high school coach that said that to me all the time.
"The bottom line is you have to play good. If you're comfortable in what you're going to wear, and you played well, I don't think it really matters what you wear."
*(Special thanks to the contributions of the 49ers Studios, Digital, Photography, Creative, Communications and Equipment staffs.) *