Three years ago, Ryan Bare was just a dad making customized shoes for his son.
“He’s a 17-year-old now, but back then he was your typical kid,” Bare, a Charlotte native, said. “All into sneakers, shoes, Jordans, all that good stuff. I’ve always done his customized cleats.”
But then before the 2015 season, Bare reached out to Tre Boston, a former Carolina safety who now plays for the Chargers, via Instagram. He asked if the safety would be interested in some specialty cleats for the season-opener. For that opening week game against Jacksonville in 2015, Bare designed shoes for both Boston and Josh Norman, who went on to become an All-Pro that season.
And while Bare says he can’t remember what either’s cleats looked like for that game, their actual play is something he hasn’t forgotten.
“That was the game Norman had a pick-six and acted like he was riding a horse and got a fine,” Bare said. “I was pretty geeked about that. We actually went and were sitting behind the bench, and all I remember is seeing him run down the sideline and into the end zone. I was like, ‘Oh my god, that dude is wearing something I worked on.’”
Fast forward to today, and Bare has now designed customized cleats (through his company, Sneaker Replay) for what he estimates are 25 current Panthers. That includes everyone from linebacker Thomas Davis to defensive end Charles Johnson, from receiver Devin Funchess to rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. Then there are all the former Panthers he takes care of, too – Norman and Boston, but also Ted Ginn Jr. and Mike Tolbert.
This past week against the New England Patriots, one pair of Bare’s shoes, for linebacker Shaq Thompson, made waves for bringing attention to the ongoing protests during the national anthem over racial injustice. The cleats featured a black hand and a white hand shaking and said ‘stay united, not divided’ on them. Thompson even addressed the shoes after the game.
“Football, or any type of sport, brings people together,” Thompson said. “We can’t have one thing separate us. We have to come together and stay together, and fight through this stuff.”
For as flashy or detailed as these shoes are, they’re much more than a piece of a uniform for these players. Rather, they’re an opportunity for players to showcase themselves, to tell a story of their past or their present or their future.
And Bare, with the tools in his workshop, is the one helping share those stories in his stitches.
‘You can express yourself’
For all the shoes Bare designs, usually seven or eight a week, you’d think he has a favorite.
“I get asked that a lot,” he said.
And while there isn’t one that is his “favorite,” there is one pair that stands out. They belong to defensive end Mario Addison, who came to Bare with a sensitive request.
“It was kind of a tribute to a lot of people that he knew that had passed away just this year alone,” Bare said. “It was insane. I kind of did them, like all their faces as a silhouette. Something simple.
“I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite pair, but it probably means more to him than most others.”
Addison keeps the pair at home, with the seven white silhouettes against the black shoes. Again, for something you wear on your feet, they’re a window into the minds of players. Or in Addison’s case, they help commemorate the lives of people he loved.
“One of them was my granddad, one was an older guy I know,” Addison said of the seven silhouettes. “One of my cousins, one of my best friends, and then a few other ones. It’s rough, man.”
“You can express yourself through cleats, you know what I’m saying? More people will see cleats when I’m on the field, when they broadcast them.”
‘Something that fans may not know about us’
For others, customized shoes are a way to connect to the outside community. Think of them as a way to spread a message to fans, rather than a personal detail.
Take running back Fozzy Whittaker, for example, who is one of Bare’s repeat customers.
“Once Tre (Boston) got with Ryan, he got with the other DBs and then just ripple effect, everybody started doing it,” Whittaker said. “Obviously a couple years ago, having custom cleats done was the thing to do in the league.”
Earlier this season when Hurricane Harvey devastated Whittaker’s hometown of Houston, he hosted a number of fundraisers to drum up support and aid for the victims. Another way to do that? Custom cleats to raise awareness.
“It’s just definitely something that ... fans may not know about us,” Whittaker said, “or something that is just kind of cool or something outside of the box.”
Whittaker’s cleats read “Houston Strong” across the toes and have his foundation listed around the ankles. They’re black and blue, the same colors as the Panthers, but when broadcasters call them out on TV, it brings attention to a cause close to the running back.
In that case, shoes become the gateway for fans to learn more about Whittaker, but also to make a difference.
‘Something I always loved’
Of course, not all the shoes Bare designs are as emotional as the pairs for Addison or Whittaker.
There are also opportunities for players to showcase their personalities or their personal lives. Cornerback Daryl Worley, for example, has a pair of Batman cleats.
“Honestly it was just something I always loved ever since the trilogy came out, that last trilogy where Christian Bale was playing Batman,” Worley said. “The older ones, I mean, it’s just kind of out of my league.”
But rather than just make himself into Batman, or throw the Batman symbol on the side of some shoes, Worley wanted to embed some of his personal life into his. That’s why he had the shoes made when his son Kaiden was born in July – and he got to put his little boy in the mask instead of himself.
It’s that bit of Worley’s personal life that fans may not know about – that he keeps a Batman figurine in his locker, or that he brought a Batman pillow pet to Panthers training camp this summer, or that his son’s room is decked out in Dark Knight gear.
“Not even bought by me honestly,” Worley said with a smile. “Honestly it comes from the walker, the little pillows and stuff like that. So he’s locked up – hopefully he likes Batman.”
Batman is just one of the more off-the-wall asks Bare has gotten. His creations range from the normal – “some guys just want plain black” – to the unique (he once made a pair of Godfather-themed softball cleats for actor Al Pacino’s daughter, who competes in a Central Park league in New York). McCaffrey so far has asked for Bruce Lee shoes and another pair featuring his favorite animal, the snow leopard.
But that variability is what Bare, who works by himself from home, loves the most about what he does. That, and having a part in sharing these players’ stories.
“It’s stuff like that, the different people you get to meet and do stuff for, that’s the fun side of it,” Bare said. “After all, who knows who’s gonna contact you next?”