N.F.L. Players Wear Their Hearts Under Their Uniforms

When Odell Beckham Jr. returned in September for his first game with the Cleveland Browns since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament nearly a year ago, he had options for his warm-up gear.

The flamboyant receiver has for years been one of the league’s more stylish players. He wore a $190,000 Richard Mille watch during a game in 2019, and this season he has donned cleats and gloves customized by Chrome Hearts, a luxury fashion line whose items can sell for thousands of dollars.

Knowing his pregame warm-ups would likely draw a few minutes of camera time, he selected his attire carefully, shunning a high-profile brand for a white T-shirt that bore a collage of images of Jarvis Landry, Beckham’s close friend and teammate at Louisiana State and in Cleveland, who had injured his knee just before Beckham was set to return.

Beckham’s shirt — which was indeed captured by the cameras — was designed by Bruce Thompson, a New Orleans native like Beckham, whose customized designs have become a popular way for the N.F.L.’s star players to show love to one another before suiting up in their uniforms.

Thompson, who is now the chief executive of his own apparel brand, grew close to the Beckham family after meeting Beckham’s father, Odell Sr., when he returned to New Orleans for high school after spending three years in Texas because of Hurricane Katrina. He graduated from Miller-McCoy Academy and earned a scholarship to play receiver at Langston University, an N.A.I.A. program in Oklahoma.

Though Thompson declared for the 2017 N.F.L. Draft, he went unselected. After a tryout with the New Orleans Saints failed to yield a roster spot, he turned to fashion, though he and Beckham still train together regularly during off-seasons.

“He didn’t necessarily get to fulfill his dream of being in the N.F.L., and this is something that he’s put a lot of hard work into and dedication,” Beckham said. “You see a guy who’s really a great human being and works hard to find a way to make a way for himself. I’m going to always support that.”

Thompson’s foray into fashion began with branded socks.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

Thompson started his Dreamathon clothing brand in January 2021, at first selling only socks emblazoned with his logo — a stick-like figure reaching for a star — and motivational quotes. But that all changed after Beckham’s T-shirt request.

In the game following his September return, Beckham again turned to Thompson, wearing a black version of the same Landry shirt. Near the end of October, Vikings defensive back Cameron Dantzler, who hails from Hammond, La., wanted to salute the team’s captain, Patrick Peterson, who had been injured ahead of an upcoming game. Dantzler reached out to Thompson to create a sort of sartorial get-well soon message, with images of Peterson in his Vikings and L.S.U. uniforms collaged together. And Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase showed love to his quarterback — and former L.S.U. teammate — Joe Burrow by wearing one of Thompson’s creations under his jersey during the team’s first playoff game in January.

It didn’t take long for players without Louisiana connections to call Thompson — he said in an interview earlier this month that “hundreds” contacted him after seeing his pieces posted on social media or mentioned by other players. Thompson’s designs evoke a 1990s retro aesthetic — each features a collage of images and colorful bold fonts — though each player’s request is tailored to his interests.

Some players ask Thompson for a shirt the Thursday before a Sunday game. Others may seek one a month in advance, ahead of meeting a particular opponent or celebrating a milestone or inspirational figure. Some solicit them for their off-field wardrobes or as gifts.

Thompson manages the business while still training as a free agent player, financing production out of his own pocket.

“For me to just sit down and try to explain how I do it, I really don’t know,” Thompson said, adding that he has not had a full night’s sleep since October.

The N.F.L.’s stringent rules regarding in-game attire do not leave much room for personalization, outside of a few preselected social justice messages players can wear on the backs of their helmets, or the handful of modifications that can be made to gloves and cleats. But the rules governing what players wear during warm-ups are looser, and Thompson’s T-shirts have become something of a staple for stars looking for a way to support their peers.

Two days after Beckham’s relationship with the Browns soured and the team released him on Nov. 5, Dantzler and Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, another L.S.U. alum, wore Dreamathon shirts scrawled with “Free Odell” in a white chalk font.

Thompson’s designs evoke a 1990s retro vibe.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk of the San Francisco 49ers wore matching shirts with pictures of Wes Welker, their position coach and a former receiver with the New England Patriots, ahead of a Dec. 19 game. The next week, Samuel and at least four teammates sported tees emblazoned with images of their head coach, Kyle Shanahan, from his playing days as a receiver at Texas.

Shortly after the former Denver Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas was found dead in his home in December, Thompson made a T-shirt for Los Angeles Rams linebacker Von Miller, who had been close friends with Thomas during the eight seasons they played together on the Broncos. Miller, who wore the shirt before a January game, said he saw Thompson’s work as a way for N.F.L. players to publicly express mutual admiration.

“We all know how much it took to even get to these moments,” Miller said, referring to the work players do to make it to the pros. “You do all of these things to play a little bit of time on Sunday, and we all respect that, win or lose.”

Thompson has started to envision a future that capitalizes on his brand’s cache, and he hopes to collaborate with the N.F.L., other sports leagues and designer labels in the future. Though he declined to say if players pay him for his gear, he sells a limited amount of shirts online to the public for $60, along with socks and accessories that sell out quickly enough that knockoff versions of his shirts have started popping up for sale on other sites.

“I always had crazy dreams,” Thompson said. “It just rubbed off, and that same passion I had for football, I just put it into this.”

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