Like countless other NFL players, Steelers’ tight end Jesse James is no stranger to getting involved in the community and with causes near and dear to his heart.
Such was the case on Monday night against the Bengals when James participated in the NFL's Week 13 “My Cause My Cleats” campaign by wearing cleats designed to showcase Penn State's THON organization, a charity whose mission, as stated by its website, is to provide emotional and financial support, as well as to spread awareness of children and families impacted by childhood cancer.
I had the privilege of corresponding via email with Vinnie Candelore, the artist who James approached to design his cleats.
"Jesse is from a small town right outside of Pittsburgh called South Allegheny, which neighbors my hometown of Elizabeth," Candelore said. "When I was growing up, Jesse's town actually was a part of our youth football program in our town due to the smaller amount of kids in the area. I never actually played on Jesse's team, but through the years I made solid friendships with his eventual high school teammates that I still am in contact with today even though I live in Charlotte."
"Last season, the NFL started the “My Cause My Cleats” movement and Jesse was in search of an artist that could do his cleats on short notice due to someone else who was supposed to do it backing out. He brought this up to one of our mutual friends, Kyle who knew of my work and the rest was history."
While James chose a charity that was near and dear to him and his alma mater, Penn State (Candelore told me that THON is run by more than 16,500 Penn State student volunteers and is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world), he gave the artist no restrictions on the design.
"The theme of doing the cleats to raise awareness for THON was totally Jesse's idea. Being that Jesse James is a Penn State alumnus, he chose a cause close to the hearts of many Penn Staters, but he gave me no limitations on how the design would need to look. And let me tell you, any artist will agree, there is nothing worse than being put in the proverbial box when it comes to creativity. The fact that Jesse was fully trusting of my design capabilities from the start allowed me to work freely and really pour my passion out into the project."
Speaking of passion, for Candelore, designing cleats has allowed him to combine two of his—art and sports—and it all began in college when he started designing his own cleats (and other parts of his uniform) as a member of the West Liberty University football team.
"After high school, I went on to West Liberty University where I played football and studied fine arts. Being the only art major on the football team always gave me a little bit of a different perspective than most of my teammates and I started to combine my two passions of design and sports however I could."
"It started my freshman year in 2009 when I was threatened by my head coach to stop chopping my game jersey with scissors just to make a more custom tight fit over my pads...(My bad coach). But it didn't stop there. I started customizing my cleats and gloves with spray paint, sharpies, and whatever else I could find in my dorm room at the time. Obviously, these would chip and peel by the end of warm ups because I had no idea what I was doing, but it sparked something that I still am working to perfect to this day."
James is the first NFL player to approach Candelore about designing his cleats for the “My Cause My Cleats” initiative, but the artist has worked on other projects for both professional and collegiate athletes.
With all the negative publicity surrounding the NFL these days—whether real or perceived—it's nice to see such a high-profile movement like “My Cause My Cleats” showcase the charity work so many players are involved with on a regular basis.
And regarding THON, both Jesse James and Vinnie Candelore, two Western Pennsylvania kids, have teamed up to bring awareness to a truly great cause.
You can also learn more about the THON organization by visiting its website, THON.org.