When you’re an artist, you take just about any gig you can get. Most of the time, though, it doesn’t get you to the NFL.
Corey Pane spent years making album covers and band posters. He’s done some airbrushing. Once he even made leather shoes, working with a friend doing hand-sewing.
Now he customizes some of the most talked-about cleats in the NFL, his creations ranging from the likenesses of Miami icons to a Veterans Day tribute. Pane is the artist behind Steelers receiver Antonio Brown’s parade of cool kicks this season, and the NFL can’t stop the duo.
“I’ve never really done cleats before this,” Pane says. “I just take whatever comes my way. I’m not really like a cleat guy. I’m just an artist. A painter.”
He and Brown have collaborated on customized cleats in six of Pittsburgh’s seven games this season, and there’s more to come. Here’s how the 27-year-old artist from West Hartford, Conn., linked up with one of the best receivers in the game.
The Many Creative Cleats of the 2016 NFL season
Around the time Brown came into the league in 2010, some of Pane’s artwork caught his eye. He commissioned Pane to do a painting of his children, and the two kept in touch after Brown liked the final product. Pane would occasionally go to Steelers home games, and late this preseason athlete and artist talked about painting some cleats and wristbands for Week 1.
Using some of Brown’s old cleats, Pane tried a few designs. Then Brown shipped Pane his game cleats, and they then came up with Week 1’s design: baby blue cleats with “84” etched on them. Brown considers the color blue to be inspiring, tweeting early in the season that blue “is trustworthiness and calm.”
“It went over pretty well, and he liked it and wanted to keep a different vibe going every week,” Pane says. “It’s inspiration for him when he looks down on the field. And as we kept coming up with ideas, he wanted to do motivational things for other people—stuff that inspires people. We just kept it going.”
The next week against the Bengals, Brown again wore light blue cleats with wings on the sides, though he only wore them in pregame warmups. He wore blue cleats with images of his children the following week against the Eagles but was forced to change them during the game because they did not conform to the league’s uniform rules.
Pane and Brown began working within the parameters of the league’s color rules. Against the Chiefs, Pane painted the late Arnold Palmer on black-and-yellow cleats. The following week they honored the late Muhammad Ali and his famous “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” quote, but officials threatened to remove Brown from the game if he didn’t change out of the Ali cleats.
“We came up that we will do them and he’ll wear them in pregame so he doesn’t keep getting fined,” said Pane of Brown, who was fined $6,076 in Week 1 for the blue cleats. “He didn’t want to risk getting ejected or suspended or anything.”
A Miami native, Brown wanted to do something special for the Steelers’ Week 6 game against the Dolphins. He asked Pane to paint the faces of late Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and late fighter Kimbo Slice on wildly colorful shoes. Brown wore them in warmups, then switched to league-approved cleats for the game.
Though they are discussed often among league observers, Brown’s weekly cleats aren’t talked about much within the Steelers’ locker room.
“I know some of it’s interesting commentary. You guys can have at it,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said last month. “But don’t expect us to participate or be enthusiastic participants in it. Because, really, it’s irrelevant. Guys change shoes in the midst of games all the time. They change gloves, they put gloves on, they take gloves off, they wear wristbands, they don’t wear wristbands. It was a non-issue for us.”
Last week Brown wore cleats bearing an image of DJ Khaled, whose “Business is boomin’” phrase Brown has adopted. Pane did not paint those, though. He has already painted cleats honoring Brown’s dad, former arena football star “Touchdown” Eddie Brown, and cleats honoring college-aged Michael Jordan that Brown will wear in Week 13 to donate to the Boys & Girls Club. On Thursday he’ll get Brown’s cleats via overnight package, paint on an image of Pat Tillman and ship them back to Brown on Friday so that they can be worn Sunday against the Cowboys as a Veterans Day tribute.
What does Pane charge Brown? They haven’t even discussed money. The two are friends, and Pane is sure Brown will be fair whenever they start talking turkey.
Pane has gotten emails from two other players—Saints tight end Josh Hill and Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower—to paint cleats for Week 13, when the NFL is allowing players to promote charitable causes on their cleats. He has no idea what to charge them, but he’s not too concerned about it, since he cares more about the art than the money.
Still, for Pane, business is boomin’.