The Vince Lombardi Trophy isn’t the only holy grail in pro football. Over the years, a signature shoe has proven to be an even more elusive distinction.
Only 19 players in the history of the NFL have received their own shoes. By comparison, 22 players in the NBA wore a signature sneaker in just the 2021-22 season.
Each week this season, exactly 1,696 total players are listed on the active rosters of the league’s 32 teams. But only two currently have a shoe to their name: Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II, who likely will lace up a regal black and purple version of the Freak Ultra from Adidas’ Wakanda Forever collection once the cleats are released Friday.
In 2016, Reebok launched a signature line for Watt that has yielded four different off-the-field models. In August 2021, Adidas unveiled the Mahomes 1.0 Impact FLX, a debut training shoe that made Mahomes the latest player to join the elite company of NFL signature athletes. The club is so exclusive for a variety of reasons, including the tough sell of historically bulky trainers, the shorter shelf lives of NFL stars, and the evolved disdain among players of the AstroTurf fields that signature football trainers have been designed to perform on.
From Walter Payton to Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Randy Moss, Michael Vick, and now Mahomes, the history of signature football footwear spans nearly 40 years, as brands including Nike, Jordan, Reebok, and Adidas have delivered sneaker designs to the NFL’s biggest stars.
This is a list of every NFL signature athlete, along with the stories behind the shoes they’ve laced up on and off the gridiron.
During a postgame interview in November 1985, star running back Walter Payton delivered a shameless endorsement when asked to describe his 40-yard touchdown run in a 36-0 Chicago Bears win over the Atlanta Falcons. “It was the shoes I was wearing. They gave me a tremendous advantage,” Payton told the Chicago Tribune after notching 20 carries for 102 yards. “I just turned it over to my KangaROO shoes.”
In 1982, Payton signed an endorsement deal with KangaROOS, just three years into the St. Louis-based footwear company’s existence. He spent the first years of his NFL career primarily taping up his cleats and turf shoes to resemble spats. The pregame ritual was a common trend among players of his generation to avoid ankle injuries, though the thick tape covered all the branding on their footwear. After landing his KangaROOS partnership, Payton began using less tape to display the company’s kangaroo silhouette logo on his feet during games.
For Payton, who died in 1999 at the age of 45, pioneering footwear in the NFL is an often-forgotten yet impactful layer to his legacy in football. By the 1984 NFL season, when the tailback nicknamed “Sweetness” broke the league’s career rushing record, KangaROOS gave him a $125,000 midnight-blue Lamborghini Countach-S that he posed with on posters promoting the brand. In 1985, Payton became the first NFL player to receive a signature shoe. Original pairs of his KangaROOS turf model, which feature his signature stitched on the heels, can still be found on eBay.
In 1986, Nike signed a two-sport college phenom named Vincent “Bo” Jackson to a multiyear endorsement deal. According to reports from the time, the contract between Nike and Jackson, who initially picked baseball over football, was worth $100,000. But it included a clause stipulating that the partnership could yield up to $1 million if he ever jumped from MLB to the NFL. Ultimately, Jackson split time between both sports, playing running back for the Los Angeles Raiders and outfielder for the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and California Angels. Still the only player to be named an All-Star in baseball and football, Jackson became one of the most marketable athletes in history.
On July 11, 1989, Nike’s iconic Bo Knows campaign debuted on a commercial break during the MLB All-Star Game, just minutes after Jackson led off the bottom of the first inning with a 448-foot home run. In the one-minute spot, Jackson promoted Nike’s Air Trainer series, which became synonymous with him despite not being his signature line. Jackson only had one official signature shoe, the Nike Air Bo Turf, released in 1990. Yet in sneaker lore, the Nike Air Trainer 3 and Nike Air Trainer SC are regarded as Jackson’s shoes.
“From going to school barefoot during the winter of ’69 to growing up and having a sneaker inspired by me … I was blessed,” Jackson told Andscape in 2021. In the history of football footwear, Jackson is, without question, a forefather.
In the locker room before the 1992 NFL Pro Bowl, Atlanta Falcons star cornerback Deion Sanders strategically wrote “FOR RENT” in black ink over the white tape on his cleats.
“A couple of the brands came at me,” Sanders recalled at ComplexCon in 2019. “But I was waiting for that whale.”
He specifically awaited Nike. And by May 1992, the brand signed another dual-sport athlete in Sanders. Like Jackson, Sanders — aka “Primetime” — split time between the NFL and MLB as a lockdown corner for the Falcons and a five-tool outfielder for the Atlanta Braves when he joined Nike. His initial sneaker deal was reportedly worth more than the $750,000 he was due to make from the Falcons that 1992 season. And as the story goes, the day media outlets announced the deal, Barry Bonds, then with the Pittsburgh Pirates, told Sanders that he needed “$100 and some shoes.”
On top of the bag Nike gave Sanders, the brand also delivered a signature line. “You wasn’t just gonna give me a shoe and I was gonna wear it,” Sanders said. “It had to embody me.”
In 1993, Sanders’ first shoe — the Diamond Turf — arrived. Nike released four more models — the Diamond Turf 2, Air DT Max ’96, and Diamond Turf 4 and 5. No football player has had more signatures than Sanders, whose relationship with Nike went sour in the early 2000s over royalties and differences surrounding his request for the brand to produce a signature cleat.
Sanders, now the head football coach at the Under Armour-sponsored, historically Black Jackson State University, has vowed never to work with Nike again. But he doesn’t hesitate to proclaim how much his Nike signatures — which he calls “Primes” — changed the game.
Before playing a single down in the NFL, Keyshawn Johnson had a signature shoe in the making.
The 6-foot-4 wide receiver from USC dressed head-to-toe in Three Stripes during his pro day, teasing the multiyear endorsement deal, worth $150,000 annually, which he signed in the lead-up to the 1996 NFL draft.
“Adidas approached me, like a number of other shoe companies, and we negotiated,” Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick by the New York Jets, told Complex in 2014. “Having my own signature shoe was part of it.”
After inking the deal, Adidas and Johnson spent six months designing his EQT Key Trainer for him to wear during his rookie season. The mid-cut silhouette featured a chunky midsole, similar to the one Adidas ultimately used on Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant’s first signature shoe, the KB8, which dropped in 1997. Other notable details on the EQT Key Trainer included a cartoon silhouette on the upper, inspired by Johnson’s profile, and a key hangtag, as a play off his name. By the Jets’ season opener on Sept. 1, 1996, Johnson became the first player to make an NFL debut in his signature shoe.
In 2014, the Adidas EQT Key Trainer returned with a retro release of the shoe’s marquee white, black, and Jets green colorway. “I thought it was cool,” Johnson said. “ … to introduce the shoe … for those who didn’t even know I had a shoe.”
Emmitt Smith’s sneaker deal essentially launched an acting career for the Super Bowl-winning running back of the Dallas Cowboys. That’s how often Smith appeared in commercials as Reebok’s face of football throughout the 1990s.
After joining the brand in late 1992, Smith hit the small screen in ads promoting a pair of cross-training models — the Preseason and Paydirt — from Reebok’s revered Pump series. He also starred in a string of Reebok spots campaigning for American football to be played at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. That same year, Smith even acted alongside legendary Soul Train host Don Cornelius and actor Richard Roundtree as part of a blaxploitation-themed Reebok campaign.
By 1997, Smith finally received the signature treatment from Reebok.
“What Reebok does for me is give me a shoe that I feel confident in and allows me to do my job the best way I know how,” said Smith in an ad promoting the Reebok ES22. The mid-cut trainer featured Hexalite, a honeycomb-patterned cushioning system, on top of a gum outsole. It’s hard to look at Smith’s shoe and not immediately draw comparisons to the Reebok Question, Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson’s first signature from 1996.
Smith went on to headline another non-signature model, known as the Reebok Rush I, before the partnership ended in the late 1990s. Reebok celebrated the brand’s former signature athlete and NFL’s all-time leading rusher in 2013 by retroing the ES22 in its original navy, black and white colorway.
The 1990s marked a prolific period of football footwear, with a collection of NFL stars headlining models for Nike. The brand prioritized defense in 1994, lacing up Rod Woodson in the Air Bowl Trainer, Junior Seau in the Air Mission and Bruce Smith in the Air Veer. Aquamarine and orange popped on Dan Marino’s pairs of the Air Speed Turf in 1995, while Marshall Faulk donned the classic black-and-white Air Barrage. The era continued with Reggie White in 1996’s Air Pro Streak Max and Jerry Rice in 1997’s Air Ubiquitous Max. There’s an everlasting debate in sneaker culture surrounding whether models headlined by players should be considered signature shoes. Most of them aren’t.
Yet the Nike Zoom Turf was marketed so much surrounding Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders that it became regarded as the Hall of Famer’s own shoe. “That was a big honor,” Sanders told Andscape in 2018. “You go from having a standard deal where you get apparel to, ‘Now, we’re going to have a shoe for you.’ That was like a stamp of approval in a lot of ways.”
After the Zoom Turf was released in 1996, Sanders received mention under the shoe’s description in Eastbay catalogs: “The translucent turf-oriented outsole is designed to meet the specific traction needs of players like Barry Sanders.” However, in images of Sanders from the mid-’90s, you’ll notice his Zoom Turfs don’t feature the shoe’s original nubbed bottoms. That’s because Nike provided Sanders with player-exclusive versions of the Zoom Turf, featuring soles from Michael Jordan’s signature Air Jordan 11, which also dropped in 1996.
Sanders went on to headline (alongside Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre) a non-signature model called the Nike Air Zoom Turf Jet. And in 2019, to commemorate 20 years since Sanders’ abrupt retirement from the NFL at 31, Nike released a special updated edition of the Zoom Turf Jet.
Similar to how the Nike Zoom Turf became known as “The Barry Sanders,” another model that colloquially took on a player’s name was the Air Max Field General — aka “The Kordell Stewarts,” headlined in 1998 by the dual-threat quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Carrying a 5-foot-11, 255-pound frame, which he used to patent his get-out-the-way running style, Hall of Fame tailback Jerome Bettis played under one of the most fitting monikers in football history: “The Bus.” So it was only right that his signature shoe incorporated the nickname.
The Nike Total Air Bus Max debuted in 1998, following the best statistical season of Bettis’ 13-year NFL career, when he had 375 carries for 1,665 yards for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“The brawny Total Air Bus Max stabilizes Jerome during offseason suspension work and tire rotation,” reads the tagline of the full-page ad for the shoe that Nike placed in magazines in 1998.
The heavily cushioned Total Air Bus Max looks more like a boot than a training shoe. By design, it had to be sturdy enough to support its signature athlete.
In 1999, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss became the first player in the NFL to sign an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand.
“The things that he did on the field, the way he ran past people, the way he caught things, he was like the Michael Jordan at the wide receiver position,” Gentry Humphrey, Jordan Brand’s longtime vice president of footwear, told Andscape in 2018.
A team of Jordan designers embedded with Moss one offseason in Florida to observe his workout and pick his brain on what a player with out-of-world athleticism needed in a shoe. Moss requested that his first signature be called one of his longtime nicknames during the design process. And in 2000, the Jordan Super Freak, a hoops-inspired zip-up model designed with a flame-retardant metallic sheen material, was released. Moss received a second signature, the Jordan Moss’afied, in 2001.
More than two decades later, Jordan now has an extensive roster of NFL athletes, including star wideouts Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams, and Deebo Samuel. But there’s only been one signature football athlete in Jordan Brand history.
“You still got guys out there wearing Jordans, but it started with me,” Moss, a 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, told Andscape. “I don’t know who it’s going to end with, but I am happy to say that I did start that trend.”
It’s one of the most electric plays in NFL history — a 46-yard walk-off touchdown scramble during a December 2002 game by the then-22-year-old Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.
At that moment, Nike’s reps were salivating as they prepared signature footwear for the gridiron phenom, who signed a lucrative deal with the brand in 2001 after becoming the first African American quarterback selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft.
“When you’re the human highlight reel,” Vick told Andscape in 2017, “you deserve to have your own shoe.”
The quarterback’s debut signature — the Nike Zoom Vick 1 — dropped in December 2003. Crafted by E. Scott Morris, the lightweight, high-top trainer and cleat only weighed 12.5 ounces per pair. Morris, who saw Vick as a “motorcycle amongst cars on the field,” added a bright-red stabilizing band across the midfoot, inspired by a bike’s clutch. And as requested by Vick, the shoe featured an ankle strap.
The Zoom Vick 2 was launched in a clean half-white, half-black colorway, rolled out with one of the most creative Nike commercials ever: The Michael Vick Experience. That one-minute spot had kids not only wanting the shoe, but wishing amusement parks actually had a ride that allowed them to “Be Like Vick.” By 2005, the superstrapped Zoom Vick 3 arrived, followed by 2006’s Zoom Vick 4.
No player in NFL history has put together a more decorated season than LaDainian Tomlinson did in 2006. The 26-year-old San Diego Chargers running back was named the Associated Press NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and league MVP, and earned the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, presented annually to a player for making an off-the-field impact in his community.
During his 2006 season, Tomlinson received signature treatment from Nike. But, at his request, the first shoe of his line was designed for kids. Nike unveiled Tomlinson’s signature Scream LT, exclusively in children’s and youth sizing and reasonably priced at $50 a pair.
“When you’re selling to kids, you have to have the right athlete,” Rodney Knox, a Nike communications director, told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2006. “With LaDainian, I think people relate to him not only for the way he plays, but also for who he is and how he relates to them.”
On an episode of ESPN2’s It’s The Shoes, Tomlinson showed off the Scream LT, which Nike made for him in a cleated version to wear during his record-breaking 2006 season. Two years later, in 2008, Tomlinson received his second signature from Nike, an off-the-field trainer dubbed the Air Max LT21.
Reggie Bush, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back from the USC, entered the NFL with the richest footwear deal ever for a football player.
In 2006, two days before the New Orleans Saints drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick, Bush signed a five-year contract with Adidas worth a reported $5 million.
He began his NFL career sporting his own cleat, the Adidas TS Reggie III, designed in Saints black and gold and released with his signature etched on the heels. The off-the-field shoe got its name from the area code of Bush’s hometown of San Diego that he inked on his eyeblack before games at USC. In 2007, Bush received a signature trainer, the Adidas RB619, in a low-cut design featuring a mid-foot strap.
Bush’s signature Adidas line never took off because he bounced between five different teams over his 11-year NFL career. Maybe Bush was ahead of his time in a college football landscape long before athletes could sign name, image and likeness deals. In an alternate reality, Bush would’ve been deserving of a signature shoe in college.
Before the 2011 NFL draft, Cam Newton broke the record for the wealthiest shoe deal for a football player, joining Under Armour on a multiyear contract reportedly worth more than $1 million annually.
Yet Newton sparked controversy at the time ahead of the NFL scouting combine with a bold proclamation surrounding Under Armour’s partnership announcement. “I see myself not only as a football player but an entertainer and icon,” he told Sports Illustrated before formally clarifying the comments days later. “I was making the point that I wanted to be the best possible ambassador for Under Armour,” Newton said, “just like I want to be the best possible ambassador for whatever team that I’m lucky to play for.”
Newton fulfilled his promise to Under Armour and the Carolina Panthers, which selected him as No. 1 overall in 2011. After being named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, the Panthers quarterback unveiled his first signature cleat with Under Armour, called the Cam Highlight, which the brand also designed as a high-top trainer. Two years later, Newton and Under Armour released his second off-the-field shoe, a low-top model dubbed the C1N, following his 2015 NFL MVP season, when he took Carolina to the Super Bowl.
For a decade, Newton outshined — as crazy as it sounds — fellow Under Armour athlete Tom Brady as the brand’s face of football.
Three straight First-Team All-Pro selections with the New York Jets from 2009 to 2011 put Darrelle Revis on the map. As a generational shutdown cornerback, he could leave any wide receiver stranded on “Revis Island.”
Inspired by that audacious athleticism, Nike made Revis the only cornerback aside from Sanders to receive a signature shoe. Launched in 2012, the Nike Zoom Revis became an instant classic after the brand assigned the project to Ken Link, the designer behind Bryant’s first two Nike signatures and five out of the first six models of LeBron James’ line.
With a low-top silhouette as a canvas, Link used Nike’s Flywire technology for lockdown support of Revis’ on-field explosiveness. The Flywire, weaved in an “XXIV” pattern as a nod to the corner’s No. 24 jersey, represented the cables supporting bridges in New York and Revis’ hometown of Pittsburgh.
“It’s just a humbling experience for me, because of where I came from,” Revis told SneakerNews in 2012. “Some of the things I believe in helped make this shoe.”
Since the Zoom Revis dropped in December 2012, countless colorways have surfaced online — from player-exclusive editions for the Oregon football team to an exclusive SoleCollector collaboration and custom pairs inspired by Nike’s Air Yeezy and Mag.
Despite the popularity of his first signature model, Revis never received a second shoe. That doesn’t mean Nike didn’t make a prototype, though. In 2015, images of “The Nike Zoom Revis 2 That Never Happened” arose, making many wonder what could’ve been.
Calvin Johnson’s 2007 NFL scouting combine numbers are still mind-boggling: a 42.5-inch vertical leap, 139-inch broad jump, and 4.35-second 40-yard dash.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound wide receiver from Georgia Tech was built like a machine. That’s why the Detroit Lions selected him with the second overall pick, why his teammate gave him the Transformers-inspired nickname “Megatron,” and, ultimately, why he received his own shoe.
After leading the NFL in receiving yards in 2011 and 2012, Johnson became the first wide receiver in Nike history to secure a signature line. In 2013, his debut Nike CJ81 arrived as a cleat and training shoe. Built for an athlete who looked like an NBA player, the silhouette resembled a basketball shoe — aesthetically a hybrid between James’ and NBA star Kevin Durant’s signature line.
To promote Johnson as the brand’s new signature football athlete, Nike commissioned Sean “Diddy” Combs to appear as the wideout’s superstar alter ego in a commercial titled Calvin & Johnson. Nike also collaborated with Hasbro on the “Megatron” colorway of the trainer, which dropped with a special-edition action figure.
Nike delivered two more signature trainers to Johnson — 2014’s CJ Trainer 2 and 2015’s low-top CJ3 Trainer, incorporating the brand’s Flyweave technology. Following the 2015 season, after nine years in the NFL, Johnson announced his retirement. In 2021, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where there’s gotta be at least one of his signature shoes stored in the archives.
Robert Griffin III
Robert Griffin III, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and track star at Baylor University, immediately got to work as an Adidas athlete before entering the NFL.
Griffin III, known as RG3, signed an endorsement deal with the brand the day before the NFL scouting combine, where he took the field in a gold pair of Adizero 5-stars as a headliner of football’s lightest cleat. And after the Washington Redskins drafted him No. 2 overall in 2012, Griffin’s promising NFL start as the Offensive Rookie of the Year earned him signature footwear.
During a Thursday Night Football game in 2013, he debuted his signature cleat, the Adidas RG3. And by July 2014, Adidas launched his first training shoe, the RG3 Boost, designed with the brand’s beloved cushioning system. “Dream come true for a small town kid with big dreams,” Griffin wrote on Instagram.
Designers at Adidas might have thought, ‘What if?’ before the first Monday Night Football game of the 2022 season, when Griffin, now an ESPN broadcaster, raced a sea hawk live on air. Yes, a real sea hawk, which Griffin smoked in a pair of Adidas. After the season his trainer released, Griffin only played in 19 games over five years, primarily due to recurring injuries that relegated him to a backup role and, ultimately, an NFL exit.
If Aug. 16, 2010, never happened, Victor Cruz wouldn’t be on this list. That night, Cruz, an undrafted free agent wide receiver, earned a roster spot on the New York Giants with an insane six-catch, 145-yard, three-touchdown preseason performance.
Cruz, a New Jersey native who is Black and Puerto Rican, played six seasons for the Giants, breaking into a salsa every time he reached the end zone.
The fashion-forward sneakerhead teamed up off the field with Nike to bring a vintage yet rejuvenated streetwear feel to a trainer. In early October 2015, he debuted his first signature shoe, the Nike Air Trainer Cruz, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Inspired by Jackson’s iconic Nike Air Trainer 3, Cruz’s rendition borrowed the model’s shape and tooling while introducing woven leather/suede and adjustable heel straps.
In November 2015, the Air Cruz was officially released, resembling Kanye West’s Nike Air Yeezy 2, Cruz’s favorite sneaker. Until he got his own, that is.
“I can’t even tell you,” he said in a video for Uninterrupted, “how humbled I am, how happy I am, how fortunate I am, to be in such an elite category of people that have their own shoe.”
Russell Wilson put the NFL — and Nike — on notice after taking off as an underrated third-round draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2012.
While repping Nike on a standard footwear/apparel deal, Wilson broke the rookie record for most touchdown passes while leading the Seahawks to the playoffs as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. In his second season, he won a Super Bowl.
Wilson left the brand and wore Under Armour throughout the 2015 NFL season. By late January 2016, Nike gave the star quarterback a new long-term contract, rumored to be the biggest shoe deal ever in football. Months later, Nike unveiled a signature logo for Wilson as the brand’s marquee NFL ambassador.
Wilson began his revamped Nike partnership by headlining a collection of shoes: the Zoom Train Command, the Tech Trainer, and a special-edition colorway of the classic dad shoe, the Air Monarch, alongside Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
In July 2018, Nike released the quarterback’s first official signature shoe, the Dangeruss Wilson 1 — a high-top trainer designed in all-black suede with gold accents. By September 2020, Wilson received his first signature cleat, the Dangeruss 3.
There aren’t enough people to complete a Mount Rushmore of defensive signature athletes. That’s because only three have received the distinction: Sanders in 1993, Revis more than two decades later, and J.J. Watt, who became the latest to debut a shoe in 2016.
Since then, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, now a 12-year veteran playing with the Arizona Cardinals, has been the face of a quietly successful signature line with Reebok.
“I tested this shoe in everything I do, and there wasn’t a time I wasn’t impressed,” he said when the Reebok JJ 1 was launched. The low-cut silhouette introduced the brand’s Liquid Foam cushioning technology, absorbing impact during workouts.
Six years later, with subsequent releases of the JJ 2, 3, and 4, Reebok has cemented Watt in rare company as one of three players in NFL history (along with Sanders and Vick) with four or more signature models. The most recent installment from Watt’s line came in 2021 when he collaborated with Pat Tillman’s widow Marie on the “Valor” JJ IV, which honors the former Cardinals player-turned-Army Ranger who was killed in 2004.
Patrick Mahomes II
It was hard to miss Patrick Mahomes II’s first signature shoe. The Adidas Mahomes 1.0 FLX (pronounced “flex”) debuted in a vibrant solar green colorway during NFL training camp in 2021. The shoe sold out online on the day it dropped in 30 minutes.
Before the start of the 2021 season, Mahomes appeared in a State Farm commercial wearing his new trainer, making him just the fifth quarterback in history to receive a signature model.
“I wanted my signature shoe and apparel to stand out — look great and perform during my workouts, but also be eye-catching off-field,” said Mahomes.
Coincidentally, Mahomes was born in 1995, the same year Hall of Famer Dan Marino became the first quarterback to headline a sneaker with the Nike Air Speed Turf. Since then, a lot has changed in sneaker culture, though a signature shoe has remained challenging to come by for a football player. Yet as a face of Adidas, Mahomes has continued the NFL’s nearly four-decadeslong run of signature footwear.
On Oct. 7, Adidas dropped a limited Black Panther-inspired Wakanda Forever edition of the Mahomes 1.0. It’s the seventh colorway and counting of Mahomes’ first shoe, extending his claim as the most-recent NFL player to release a signature model.
The question now is which NFL player will be next to get his own shoe.