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Many customized cleats in Sunday's NFL games were designed in Buffalo

The epicenter of a national phenomenon is located on 900 square feet in the Walden Galleria.

On the second floor, between Abercrombie & Fitch and Perfumania, where a frozen yogurt shop used to be, is a molten nexus of sports, pop culture, sneakers and art.

Fabes Sole High was founded for the serious sneaker customer, folks who desire the hottest brands, who collect limited editions and who want to keep their stockpile tip-top.

The Walden Galleria location opened in June and quickly became the go-to spot for custom sneakers and football cleats. Some of the sports galaxy's biggest stars are clients. Co-owner Napoleon "Polo" Kerber and artist Nicholas Avery recently were summoned to Oregon to collaborate with Nike.

About 25 pairs of their shoes will be showcased in stadiums this week as part of the NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats" campaign. Several customized pairs will be worn when the Buffalo Bills play the Oakland Raiders on Sunday afternoon.

[Photo Gallery: NFL Custom Cleats]

"To me, it's surreal," Kerber said. "I've grown up watching football, playing football. These guys were superheroes you look up to, guys who were untouchable, guys on my fantasy team.

"It's mind-blowing that us regular guys are working with them. It's a crazy feeling, and it's only going to get bigger."

Kerber and Avery are scheduled to meet NBA icon LeBron James in three weeks. They're already handling an order from NHL star Alexander Ovechkin to design three pairs of skates.

"We're trying to take over all four sports," Kerber said. "We got into NFL stadiums in less than a year. Who knows what we can accomplish in four years?"

They were contracted to customize sneakers for rapper Jay Z to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his "Reasonable Doubt" album. They've done shoes for Raekwon from the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan.

Fabes Sole High is floating in the otherworldly orbit of sports luxuries along with celebrated tattoo artists, custom car builders and bling designers.

The NFL generally frowns upon custom cleats. Strict uniform policies keep most from being worn during games, but players can wear pretty much whatever they want while warming up. Personalized shoes have become a pregame fad.

With "My Cause, My Cleats," the NFL is letting players gussy up their kicks for one week to publicize causes important to them.

"In the NFL there's only so much you can do with the color schemes and the fines," Bills safety and Turner-Carroll grad Corey Graham said. "You've got to be careful. So I try not to overdo it.

"But this week is the first time I've been able to get creative."

Avatar spikes made for Kevon Seymour of the Buffalo Bills. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Avatar spikes made for Kevon Seymour of the Buffalo Bills. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Fabes Sole High handled as many requests as it could process, including Graham's and many of his teammates.

Avery painted several more as a Nike subcontractor. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, receivers Doug Baldwin and Jarvis Landry and Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack from the University at Buffalo are among that Nike crew.

"You try not to be a fan or mix that with your business," Kerber said. "But to have guys that we're fans of be fans of us? It's priceless."

Getting personal

Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor will represent Olmsted Center for Sight. Running back LeSean McCoy will advocate ALS awareness. Left guard Richie Incognito went with the Veterans One Stop Center. Pass-rusher Shaq Lawson will promote the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Make-A-Wish.

Not everyone found selecting a cause easy.

A group of about 10 Bills initially decided to band together in support of Black Lives Matter, interesting given how carefully the club has distanced itself from hot-button social issues this year.

The Bills released a statement to separate the organization from coach Rex Ryan's association with Donald Trump's campaign. Players rebutted a national report the locker room was divided over the election. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been kneeling for the national anthem, made his first start this year in Orchard Park without incident.

Black Lives Matter appears to be the only "My Cause, My Cleats" idea multiple Bills banded together to support, but it fizzled for multiple reasons.

"The team was actually behind it, which was surprising," Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "But you don't want to distract from what we're trying to accomplish here."

Alexander was among the Black Lives Matter group but decided to switch after discussing it with his wife. They feared backlash for their children at school.

"When you look at the news and see social media, crazy stuff is happening, especially with the turmoil our country's in right now," Alexander said. "So I backed off from it.

"If you stand for something, people might think you're against everything else. It's hard with this NFL platform. Even though you're standing for something just, do you really want to expose yourself to ignorance?"

Alexander instead will promote his ACES Foundation for youth enrichment programs. His shoes were painted by an artist defensive tackle Leger Douzable knows. Douzable also considered Black Lives Matter but switched to New Story, disaster relief for Haiti.

Other players who intended to wear Black Lives Matter cleats are injured. Defensive end Corbin Bryant has a season-ending shoulder problem. Wide receiver Robert Woods hasn't been able to practice because of a knee injury. Running back Mike Gillislee is recovering from a bad hamstring.

Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin declined to discuss why he switched from Black Lives Matter to cerebral palsy awareness, a cause that's nonetheless close to his heart. His sister has cerebral palsy.

But Goodwin, who exchanged game jerseys with Kaepernick after they played Oct. 16, insinuated the plug was pulled on him.

"I'm very disappointed," Goodwin said. "I wanted to take a stand. I wanted to show I feel that people are hurting in the world, people who are suffering. I can't turn a blind eye to it.

"At the same time, I've sacrificed a lot to get to where I am, and I don't want to watch it go down the drain. I appreciate there's a time and a place to speak out, and I want to do that in a respectful manner."

Nicholas Avery works on a pair of cleats for Marquise Goodwin of the Buffalo Bills. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Nicholas Avery works on a pair of cleats for Marquise Goodwin of the Buffalo Bills. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Graham is among those who stuck with Black Lives Matter as his cause.

Fabes Sole High customized two pairs for Graham, who noted he received zero pushback about his cause.

"It's important," Graham said. "I'm not going to kneel during the national anthem, but when the NFL gives you an opportunity to wear something with meaning, when you got people getting murdered without accountability, you want to bring awareness.

"This is an issue that needs to be addressed."

Shoes make the man

Customized cleats are a feverish trend around the NFL. Players use them to express their individualism in a league that demands uniformity.

"Having a shoe deal is pretty sweet," Bills rookie quarterback Cardale Jones said, "but everybody has the same style and colors. You still want to put your own twist on it."

The NFL enforces strict rules on what players can wear under a code of conduct collectively bargained with the NFL Players Association.

The league fines players for such transgressions as droopy socks, untucked jerseys and shoes that deviate from team colors. Personal messages also are prohibited.

A player's first uniform violation costs $6,076. The second offense is $12,154. Additional violations can lead to fines for the front office and coaching staff, too.

Some don't care about the fines and wear illegal cleats anyway. Given that, paying Fabes Sole High $400 to $500 to customize them is a trifle.

Jones, a fourth-round draft choice who hasn't thrown an NFL pass, has been instrumental to Fabes Sole High's breakout.

Former Bills receiver Stevie Johnson, after seeing a photo of Avery's work on Instagram, ordered a design based on the film "Edward Scissorhands." And two summers ago, McCoy and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown – they're represented by the same agent – went to Fabes for customized cleats for a charity softball game.

But in the five months since the Walden Galleria location opened, crossing paths with Jones has been Fabes' biggest break.

Jones was a collector on the hunt for limited-edition Nikes. Jones, who estimated he owns at least 90 pairs of sneakers, once bought a $500 pair of Air Jordan Retro 1 Breds.

When Jones wore a pair of customized cleats in a preseason game, word of mouth traveled swiftly around the Bills' locker room and along the Ohio State football pipeline.

Teammates wanted to know where they could get their own and have been hyping Fabes to their friends around the NFL.

Bills rookie cornerback Kevon Seymour has worn cleats with "Avatar" and "Sonic the Hedgehog" imagery. New York Giants rookie receiver Sterling Shepard has sported a "Where's Waldo" theme, as though defenders have trouble finding him.

Sterling Shepard wide receiver for the NY Giants has a Oklahoma City them spike made at Sole Flight in the Walden Galleria Mall for the NFL's Cleats for a Cause on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.(Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard had cleats customized to honor his late father. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard had cleats customized to honor his late father. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Shepard received his newest cleats Monday. They read "RIP D-Shep" with the Oklahoma City skyline. Shepard's father, Washington and Dallas receiver Derrick Shepard, died when Sterling was 6.

"Man, y'all did it again!" Sterling Shepard wrote in a text to Kerber. "I'm rocking these either this week or Dallas. Appreciate you all, bro."

Others who've worn Fabes creations include New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty, twin brother and Tennessee Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, Houston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Indianapolis Colts receiver Donte Moncrief.

Fabes Sole High might have a chance to work with the biggest name in sports.

Jones has arranged for Kerber and Avery to meet with LeBron James, a colossal Ohio State supporter, when the Cavaliers play the Golden State Warriors on Christmas.

"The beauty of this has been once you do one thing, you never know what it's going to lead to next," Kerber said.

One step at a time

Kerber, 26, used to work at the Foot Locker downstairs. His obsession with collecting sneakers wasn't helping the Amherst High grad's bank account.

"They might as well have paid me in gift cards," Kerber said. "I was spending more than I was making."

But the job exposed him to the booming sneaker industry, introduced him to sneaker zealots and underscored an opportunity to turn his passion into a business.

The hottest kicks, many of them limited editions, sell out at stores such as Foot Locker and Dick's Sporting Goods in a blink. They often get sold on the secondary market for many times the retail price.

Kerber and business partners Jake Lockwood and Steven Davis, fellow sneakerheads from Buffalo and the Syracuse area, opened the first Fabes Sole High store at 569 Elmwood Ave. in November 2014.

Avery walked in opening day and introduced himself.

Avery, a 31-year-old University at Buffalo fine arts alum, had been customizing shoes as a hobby since 2013. While laying underground cable with his father in Pennsylvania, it would take Avery three weeks to finish one pair of sneakers.

Avery joined up with Kerber, and the Walden Galleria location opened in June. There's a third store at the Destiny USA mall in Syracuse, but Cheektowaga is the only place Avery customizes.

Now Avery is cranking out several pairs a week. Each job requires about 20 hours of attention. He works on two or three pairs at a time.

Identical twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty'a Sickle Cell made at Sole Flight in the Walden Galleria Mall for the NFL's Cleats for a Cause on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.Devin plays for the New England Patriots while Jason plays for the Tennessee Titan(Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Identical twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty'a Sickle Cell made at Sole Flight in the Walden Galleria Mall for the NFL's Cleats for a Cause on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.Devin plays for the New England Patriots while Jason plays for the Tennessee Titan(Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Identical twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty had cleats made to raise awareness for Sickle Cell Anemia. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

With a few exceptions or maybe a color request, Avery's customers give him little instruction. He has a sketchbook full of ideas to inspire him.

"Nick can make anything come to life," Jones said.

Avery's method was sharpened by trial and error. He first sands down the shoes to create a more porous surface for the paint to adhere and applies acetone to remove the factory's clear coat.

All of the areas that shouldn't be painted are taped over. Avery then paints the shoe white or light gray, providing him a blank canvas.

The cleats Goodwin dropped off Monday were black Nike VPRs. They came back Wednesday green and white, the colors for cerebral palsy awareness. Scripted on the left toe box is "Deja," his sister's name. On the right toe box is a handprint.

"All I said is that I want my sister's name on my shoes and the cause," Goodwin said. "Then I let their creativity take over."

Many of Avery's original images and any lettering or logos are sent to Danny Hernandez of D-Nice Customs, a Buffalo printing company, to create the stencils. Avery airbrushes the larger areas and adds fine details by painting with a razor blade.

Avery fires a heat gun to cook the paint onto the shoe as needed. Sometimes, he'll finish with a clear coat.

However Avery does it, customers rave about his work.

"Those guys do a great job," Graham said. "It's amazing."

The shoe-customization business continues to grow at a bewildering rate.

"In a lot of ways, stuff hasn't hit me," Avery said. "As soon as I finish one cleat, two more are staring me in the face. There's so little time to sit back and enjoy it.

"On Sunday, Polo is watching games, and I'm worried about sizing stencils and envisioning designs. It's overwhelming."

Might Fabes Sole High turn into a national franchise?

"No," Kerber said, "because I can't clone Nick."

Fabes Sole High does have an intern who's learning the trade, but it's too soon to say whether he could become Avery's apprentice. Avery would welcome the possibility. Business success has erased the time he craves to make art on canvas.

Shoe art isn't a proprietary business. Avery and Kerber don't hold any patents. Theoretically, anyone can get into the game and try to compete in the marketplace.

"Painting a cleat is easy," Avery said. "But the time and quality I put into a pair is unmatched. I feel my artistic creativity in a lot of ways is unmatched."

A quarterback's sneaks

In the Bills' locker room Wednesday, Taylor smiled wide at the question. The fashionable Bills quarterback emitted a high-pitched whistle as his first reply.

How many pairs of sneakers do you own?

"In Buffalo?" Taylor said, looking at the ceiling. "Maybe 250."

And all together?

Taylor whistled again. He kept a stash at his mother's house, but she moved and had to put maybe 120, 150 pairs – by his guess – into a storage facility.

"She got tired of looking at them," Taylor said.

"But look at this ..."

Taylor proudly strolled to his locker stall. He lifted the bench seat to reveal dozens upon dozens of cleats and running shoes crammed inside.

Sneakerheads emerged to consume a delicious stew created by sports, hip-hop and street cultures.

"It's a way to show you're in tune with what's going on in the world," Graham said.

The sneaker obsession was spawned by Michael Jordan's seminal Nike line, Run-DMC's "My Adidas," the underground art scene and rollouts that caused kids and grownups alike to camp out for days and maybe brawl over the limited supply.

Goodwin and Alexander echoed the same sentiment: Their families were too poor to spend money on shoes back in the day. As NFL athletes, they have the access and money to pile up boxes now.

"When I was growing up," Alexander said, "I could have only one pair for that school year and one pair of cleats for the season.

"Now that I have a Nike deal and the finances, I can afford it. I like to get those styles I couldn't get."

For some players, however, shoes are so important they wouldn't think of decorating them.

Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams isn't participating in "My Cause, My Cleats" this week. Nike stopped making his preferred style a couple of years ago. He has only a few pairs left. He won't risk loaning out even a single pair.

"I don't fool around with my shoes," said Williams, who has a history of Achilles problems.

Kerber doesn't take offense. Fabes Sole High has more business than it can handle lately anyway.

For instance, the Arizona Cardinals defense recently submitted a custom-cleats order for the whole unit, but Avery couldn't accommodate them all.

"It can go as big as we can keep up," Kerber said of Fabes' future. "As long as we can produce quality work, we will keep moving forward."

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