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Miki Merritt had a golden opportunity.

The founder and owner of 573 Tees in Columbia was getting constant direct messages on Twitter last season, asking him to make T-shirts featuring Missouri’s then-freshman kicker Harrison Mevis’ face and his nickname, “Thiccer Kicker,” stretched across the front. From a business standpoint — and from a “this shirt would be awesome” standpoint — it was a no-brainer.

Just one problem.

“Being the person I am, I’m not making money off college kids,” Merritt said. “I’m not doing it.”

At the time, college athletes weren’t allowed to make money off their name, image and likeness, which prohibited them from making and selling personal merchandise like T-shirts. That changed on July 1, and several Missouri athletes including Mevis, who made the Thiccer Kicker shirt a reality have taken advantage.

“I think (selling shirts) has helped tremendously,” Mevis said. “I think it’s kind of put me out there even more than what just playing football has.”

Mevis’ first shirt comes in white and heather grey and features his personalized logo, a set of goalposts and an M, along with an image of the Indiana native celebrating a field goal in the Kentucky game last season. His second shirt comes in gold, with the Thiccer Kicker nickname in bold print across the front.

“Eventually we’re gonna have hats, sweatshirts — you know, it’s gonna get cold here soon,” Mevis said. “I think we’ll be seeing a mid-season pack here.”

Merchandise has become a major way players are utilizing NIL, because it’s a great way to grow their own brand.

“It’s a solid piece of the business for me, and for them,” Merritt said. “I would say it’s always an uptick in sales when a new release or a new player comes out for me for sure.”

A shirt with a logo on it isn’t usually enough, though. To be successful and sell more than 20-50 shirts to family, friends and former coaches, players have to work and get creative to sell their image.

“The hardest part, I would say for them, is to keep the momentum going and to kind of come up with not just a logo design T-shirt,” Merritt said. “I would say that’s probably the biggest difference; when I see the difference in sales between athletes is if they have their logo on a shirt, just their logo, it doesn’t generate the casual fan to just buy the shirt organically.”

Mevis has been one of Merritt’s top sellers. That’s in part because Mevis plays the most out of Merritt’s clients, but also because he’s built a brand for himself.

“It’s all about your personality… (Mevis) has a nickname, he capitalizes off of it,” Merritt said. “He has a logo, but he also has done more with his design on his shirt as well.”

Mevis’ mom, Tina, knew that her son had the right personality for NIL. Initially, she was slightly uncomfortable with the Thiccer Kicker nickname, but she came around to it when it became clear that her son didn’t mind it.

“He’s got a funny personality,” Tina Mevis said. “He’s witty, he’s quick. Kind. He’s a good kid.”

• • •

Merritt’s process of partnering with athletes began July 1, the day NIL became the NCAA’s new normal. He put out a tweet that included a contact form and made it clear that he was interested in selling player merchandise at 573 Tees. By the next day, he already had a bite.

“The first one was (Drake) Heismeyer,” Merritt said. “He was ready to go.”

Heismeyer has been at the forefront of NIL for Missouri, eating at local restaurants and posting the food on instagram with the hashtag “69EatsLocal,” referencing his jersey number with the team. That number — and the fact that her son is making money off of it — is something that Heismeyer’s mom, Jennifer, absolutely loves.

“The SEC motto is ‘Together, it just means more,’” Jennifer Heismeyer said. “So, we played off that motto — and I believe that that motto is copyrighted, so we added ‘because.’ So, ‘69, because together, it just means more.’ It’s a double-entendre.”

Heismeyer’s mom was heavily involved in striking a deal with Merritt, and she said it wasn’t a difficult negotiation.

“(Merritt) already had a system. … Basically, it was an agreement online that you just had to fill out,” Heismeyer said. “He basically takes the orders, makes the shirts, does all the shipping. He does all the work.”

The result: A logo, designed by Jennifer Heismeyer’s sister, depicting Heismeyer’s face, blond hair and beard with sunglasses and No. 69. He sells a trucker hat, a women’s tank top, five varieties of T-shirts — including one with the “It Just Means More” motto — and a ¾-sleeve baseball shirt.

Black was Heismeyer’s first choice for the primary color.

“He loves black, because he’s a lineman and black is a lineman’s favorite color because it’s slimming,” Jennifer Heismeyer said, laughing.

Merritt also has a system to allow the players to profit off the shirts. He covers the cost of shipping, printing, the shirt itself and any customer service that comes with the sale, out of a flat rate for which he sells the shirt. Whatever the player decides to sell the shirt for on top of the flat rate is their personal profit.

Heismeyer didn’t want to mark the shirts up too much, because he knows his market is college kids who can’t afford a significant upcharge.

“We wanted to try and keep it at $20, but when you do a second location with multiple colors it costs a little bit more, so we had to bump some of them to $25, because Drake … would rather have more people wearing shirts than make money,” Jennifer Heismeyer said.

“(Drake) feels like the more shirts that are out there, the more followers he will get,” she said. “And the more followers you get, the more opportunity you have for bigger companies who will ask and want you to do endorsement deals.”

Merritt estimates that he’s helped players earn about $1,000 in NIL money through merchandise since July 1, including Heismeyer. Heismeyer’s mom will tell you, though, that the money is secondary to the advertising and brand recognition benefits.

“That’s the first thing I would tell people — you can’t sell a T-shirt for $40,” Jennifer Heismeyer said. “You’re a nobody. You can’t sell a T-shirt for that much money to college kids. … It’s just to have fun and get a marketing tool, I guess.”

• • •

Jesse Cox, a lifelong Tigers fan from St. Charles, Missouri, knew he wanted to do something to benefit Missouri athletes when NIL came into effect. His primary business, corporate retirement plan consulting and administration, wasn’t going to work, so Horns Down Shop was born in August with its first NIL athlete, Missouri sophomore cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr.

As you might guess, the store sells anti-Texas apparel, along with collections of Missouri, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma merchandise. Cox is currently in negotiations with recognizable athletes at some of those schools, one of whom is a projected first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft.

“We thought it was a good idea, and we moved pretty quickly to secure an athlete endorsement,” Cox said. “We thought Ennis Rakestraw was the right person for us because of the media attention when he chose Mizzou.”

The media attention refers to a viral video of Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz celebrating like a madman (in a good way) when he found out that Rakestraw chose the Tigers over Alabama and Texas. It makes sense for a store called “Horns Down Shop” to partner with a player who spurned the Longhorns.

Cox reached out to Rakestraw’s mom, Shamika Quigley, on Twitter. The two quickly got along and formed a working relationship.

“I just wanted to be involved in some way, but Jesse pretty much let me have my way,” Quigley said. “If I had any suggestions, if I needed anything within the agreement or anything like that changed, he was willing to do that for me. I was pretty much hands-on with the whole process other than Ennis making that final decision to go ahead and sign with him.”

On the Horns Down Shopwebsite, the first link that pops up appears under the phrase, “Check out our Ennis Rakestraw Jr. merch!” Click the link, and you’ll find a gold T-shirt with an outline of Rakestraw’s face on it along with his name in bold letters, adult and youth-sized signed footballs and a signed replica helmet.

“I think it impacted (Rakestraw’s notability) quite a bit, because of course with football players, they have on those helmets all the time, so you can barely see their face,” Quigley said. “So, to be able to put that name with the face, you’ll always remember it.”

“We probably had three or four concepts that we thought were decent ideas around them, and that was the one that Ennis liked the most,” Cox said. “It’s important for all of our athletes that they have final approval and passions and some creative influence in what we’re creating for them.”

Cox did not disclose the exact sales numbers, but he did say that Horns Down Shop has sold a “decent” amount of Missouri merchandise, of which Rakestraw gets a share of the profit as well.

However, the products with Rakestraw’s image and autograph on it have sold twice as well as the ones without.

“I think that’s a testament to fans at Missouri, who understand that players have NIL opportunities and we need to support them,” Cox said. “This is a way to do that, by buying his T-shirt.”

• • •

When Quigley first saw the design for Rakestraw’s shirt, she was blown away.

“When I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is gonna be a hit,’” Quigley said. “I don’t know what other shirts are coming, but, definitely with the picture, it personalizes him.”

For Quigley, as well as Jennifer Heismeyer and Tina Mevis, it’s a heartwarming experience to see her son not only be in a position to sell merchandise but to actually have people buy it and see them wear it.

“When Ennis first started out playing football in pee-wee or little league, I couldn’t envision where he is today,” Quigley said. “So, of course, for him to actually have merchandise and everything like that, where people are excited to buy — before we could get the link up, I had people reaching out to me.”

A big moment for Heismeyer’s marketing efforts, in his mom’s eyes, was when she sat at a Francis Howell game and saw a reporter for STL.com, who happened to be a Howell alum like Heismeyer, wearing her son’s shirt.

“It was just surreal, because you think, ‘Oh, the grandmas and grandpas and the cousins and the brothers,’ … you know your family is going to buy the shirts, but when you see it’s somebody completely unrelated, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. People do like it,” she said.

Walking through the South Hall parking lot on game day, it doesn’t take long to find a tailgater rocking a white shirt with the No. 92 on it. That’s a source of pride for Mevis’ family.

“He’s a smart kid, and he’s gotta take advantage of every opportunity possible in this life, and I feel like he’s trying to do that,” Tina Mevis said. “We’re happy for him.”

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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