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Cody Sabol & the story behind Mike Tomlin’s AF1 Steelers motivation project

“I thought somehow, in this weird way, I’m going to be responsible for this loss.”

NFL: Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In the moments before the Steelers left for their September 11th game against Cincinnati, the history books added a new chapter to the ongoing mythology of Mike Tomlin. Black Nike Air Force 1s for everyone. A gift from Mike Tomlin, and a motivating message that resonated across the locker room and the country. The plan was set in motion a week early when Pittsburgh cleat king Cody Sabol got a call from the Steelers head of equipment, Adam Regan.

“You can kind of hear it in his voice,” Sabol says. “He’s like ‘I don’t know if this is possible, but is there any way you can create some Air Force 1s that are all black?’”

The Steelers had 146 pairs of shoes, but they were white. It was Cody’s mission to paint every pair completely black. After the call with Regan ended, he knew he had to call in some back-up.

“I employed some of my closest friends, and I said ‘Why don’t you call off a week of work, and I’ll pay you. We got it done. We created a little bit of a of a workshop in my garage. We should probably go see a doctor.”

Cody has become the go-to artist for the team’s cleat needs. He says he’s become very familiar with just about everybody in the Steelers front office, especially the equipment guys like Regan, Pat Noone and Kyle Powers. Cody says they’re always in contact, because cleats constantly need to be changed or fixed to Steelers colors.

“For example, James Daniels is a new guy on the team,” Cody says. “This is his first year on the Steelers. He has a bunch of cleats from teams past, or he has a couple pairs of cleats that Nike doesn’t make anymore. So sometimes guys get really comfortable with a set of cleats and then Nike stops producing them. Last year, we had to turn Trai Turner’s cleats from 2013 into Steelers colors. We were shoveling off paint, because in every, city he would get a new custom artist. People wonder, ‘Can’t they just get new shoes?’ and the answer is sometimes, ‘No, they can’t.’”

Once news of the AF1s went viral, Cody had a new concern: social media. Some critics panned the gesture by saying Tomlin hadn’t given them ‘real’ Air Force Ones.

“If the team lost, I was going to get a lot of flak on Twitter, because they were fake black Air Force ones,” Cody says. “Boswell came out for the first attempt in overtime, and then he doinked it. Somehow in this weird way, I’m thinking that I’m going to be responsible for this loss. They ended up winning, which is great. Anytime you do something that gets a lot of traction on Twitter or social media in general, you seem to hear a lot of the negative side. So the fact that they won really helped out with that.”

New Steelers Logo?
Steelers Reddit

While Cody doesn’t necessarily endorse the idea that Tomlin’s gesture compares to artists like Banksy or Warhol, he does acknowledge that he had a role in something special.

“I feel like it’s become a little part of the Steelers lore,” Cody says. “Tomlin wanted to send a message to the rest the NFL that we’re gonna be fighting. All season, we’re gonna be fighters. That’s a mentality that we have to have. The idea that I got to be a part of that was really cool, and to bring Coach Tomlin‘s vision to fruition was a really cool thing in and of itself.”

(Kyle Chrise is the host of “What Yinz Talkin’ Bout.” Listen to more of Cody’s interview on the episode dropping 9/29/22)