Former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson caught up with SI.com to discuss his capsule collection with shoe brand Awl & Sundry. 

By Rohan Nadkarni
October 27, 2017

Athlete fashion is now meeting purpose. Former NFLers Nate Burleson, Marcel Reece, and Rashad Jennings, as well as Ravens safety Eric Weddle, have teamed up with New York shoe brand Awl & Sundry to help put shoes on kids in Africa. Awl & Sundry started a kickstarter campaign earlier this year, pledging to put a pair of shoes on kids in Kenya for every pair bought from their new capsule collection. The collection features shoes reflecting the personalities of the players involved, and the project has already raised over $28,000.

The Kickstarter campaign to send shoes to Africa ends Oct. 27.  Earlier this month, Burleson, who is now a panelist on CBS’s NFL Today, caught up with SI.com to discuss the project, why he wants to give back, and more.

SI.com: How did this idea come about?

Nate Burleson: It’s started as a brainstorming session. The idea was to create a shoe. Awl & Sundry did a collection with Kam Chancellor. I didn’t want to make a $400 shoe. I wanted to do something a little bit more inexpensive. I also wanted to do something that has a hook, a charitable cause. We thought about different things. The first thing that popped into my head was Toms. You’re familiar with the brand even if you don’t have the shoes. I started to throw that idea into the air, and we all just built off of that. One thing led to another. If you know how to make leather shoes, you should know how to make inexpensive shoes. And we can put them on kids who need it? That made all of this worth it. We got the price point down on the shoes. And we were able to pinpoint where we needed the shoes. In the U.S., there are kids who don’t have the things we take for granted. But it’s more evident in other places. We started in Africa and we found schools. The images of kids putting on shoes for the first time. It set me down. I literally had to sit down. I wanted a big charitable component to it. If people are hesitant about buying another athlete product, they’re going to get something more out of this than just shoes.

SI: What are the logistics of getting the shoes to the kids? And what about the customer?

NB: We could have done it in Italy or in the States, but the cost would have been too much. It’s about the necessity. The kids need shoes. It would have been a waste of money and effort to make the shoes here. So we outsourced the production to Africa itself. So we can make the shoes to exactly what we want. It’s a shoe similar to a Chuck Taylor, which is one of the most durable shoes of all time. There’s a guy on the ground. We gave him all the specifics we want. It’s the best way for us to get the kids on the shoes as soon as possible. We gave the money straight to the source, and the shoes are being made right away. What we say is what we’re going to do, and it’s getting done.

The thing about the Italian shoes, they’re handmade. We could have gone cheap. The best part about this whole process is people are buying a handmade shoe for way less than any department store. Crazy detail. Hand-stitched leathers. Very durable, versatile. Everything will be first class. The more important thing is getting the shoes on the kids. I had different athletes involved. There concern wasn’t their own shoes. Their concern was the kids. We’ll talk our time with the shoes people purchased. These aren’t the Lonzo Balls. These are handmade shoes. The process takes time.

SI: What’s it like for you to be working with other athletes on this?

NB: I’ve known these guys for a long time. Played against Eric Weddle. Been friends with Rashad Jennings for a while. It’s good to see these guys heavily involved in something that’s as impactful as this. We attach our names to stuff too often that’s just a quick buck. I haven’t seen a dime. Don’t care about seeing a dime. I just want to see change. I just want to see people benefit from something I can use my name on. There’s also so many things we can do here. Vegas. Homes being destroyed. So many places we can help. But this is a start. We want to work outside in. We want to be able to repeat this model. If we can do that, this can be something much bigger than a one-off. Maybe we do something similar to Toms. And maybe department stores reach out to us. That’s later down the line. If this is the end, cool. If every kid gets shoes, and we want to repeat for every thing we can, great, we can do it. Now we have the blueprint.

SI: What impact has this project had on you?

NB: It’s incredible. I’m a receiver. I’m a Leo. We love the center stage. All receivers are divas at heart. Back when I was in elementary school I would sew together a beanie from ripped up sweatpants. it was like the Kid N Play hat. I would sell them for 10$ a pop. That was me every single year trying to do something creative. I would trade clothes, trade shoes. Now I’m in a position where I can afford what I want, but there’s no benefit if you’re not giving back to people who need. I just moved to Jersey. I’m blessed beyond means. I don’t need for anything. As I’m moving homes I realize I have too much stuff. Too much excess. What do you do? I don’t need to keep this. It’s been humbling. It’s athletes who have more than what we need. You feel so much better giving away.

SI: How involved do you get to be in this process?

NB: I’m heavily involved. I had the CBS show do a spotlight on our project. I use my platform to highlight it. It’s not often that players get to talk about their own brand. But this is so important to me. They allowed me to do that. I’m going to try to share this as much as I can. The goal is to put shoes on the kids. That’s it. I stay away from the finance part of it. I let them do all of that, that’s not where my energy is. It’s not about the bottom line. I’ll get more involved if it turns into a brand. As far as my immediate goal right now, it’s just to get shoes on kids. We’ll continue to do it. We want to re-write what it means to be an athlete. You get cash, high fives and hugs but it’s a lot more than that.

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