The debut piece in the digital series featured Chase Young as “The Predator,” the nickname Washington’s dreadlocked rookie pass rusher acquired at Ohio State. Next came Dwayne Haskins, standing between animal sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa from Disney’s “The Lion King,” a nod to the quarterback’s adopting the moniker of the movie’s main character, Simba, as a child. A Shawn Michaels-inspired concept for wrestling fan Ryan Kerrigan, who hits Michaels’s signature “HBK” pose after sacks, was another obvious choice.
Other players have presented more of a challenge for freelance illustrator Anthony Zych.
“What’s scary?” Zych said in a phone interview, referring to the “Scary Terry” nickname often used for Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin. “What’s going to communicate this freak of nature who’s going to be catching footballs left and right on the field?”
For Zych, 31, inspiration struck in the form of “High Score,” the Netflix docuseries about the history of classic video games. After watching an episode that focused on popular fighter games, Zych decided to draw McLaurin with additional arms, like the Mortal Kombat characters Goro and Sheeva. He made McLaurin’s pupils white and sketched the second-year pro floating above fire, unbound by chains.
“Hopefully that communicates that this dude is badass, that this dude is out to get you,” he said. " … At the end of the day, that’s why I love what I do. I get to tell a story.”
When Zych submitted his illustration of McLaurin to Marcus Stephenson, Washington’s vice president of digital marketing and programming who came up with the idea for the project, Stephenson asked if it was a reference to “Hellraiser.” Zych confessed he’d never seen the horror film.
“That all came from myself, and I think that’s why I consider that one my favorite so far,” Zych said. “These ideas strike you in the weirdest moments and the weirdest ways."
“Hellraiser” excluded, Zych said that he and Stephenson discovered when they worked together with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets from 2012 to ’14 that they shared many of the same pop culture references and favorites from the 1980s and ’90s. The two kept in contact after their careers diverged and occasionally talked about collaborating again.
Stephenson, who joined the Washington Football Team late last season, first reached out to Zych about doing a comic-book-style illustration to commemorate quarterback Alex Smith being activated from the physically unable to perform list last month. That one-off idea morphed into a countdown series that was originally supposed to last five days, but soon grew to 10.
“It’s been pretty hectic, but I kind of thrive in these moments, so I’m pulling through,” said Zych, who spends roughly 12 hours on each illustration, working primarily in the Procreate app on his iPad and Photoshop. “It’s really nice to work with Marcus again and cool to see him as excited as he is. … All that matters to me is that the fans are happy. I’m doing this for them. It’s for their team, it’s for their passion. I’m just lucky to be the guy chosen to do it."
Zych had ideas of becoming an architect when he enrolled at Ohio State before graduating with degrees in visual communication design and interior design. During his time with the Blue Jackets, he drew praise for the Playbill-inspired posters he created for every home game during the 2015-16 season. Since then, he has done freelance work for a variety of teams and outlets, including the Carolina Panthers, Nashville Predators and Bleacher Report. One of his newest clients is the expansion Seattle Kraken of the NHL.
The countdown to Washington’s opener against the Philadelphia Eagles reached four days on Wednesday with an illustration of Matt “The Greek Freak” Ioannidis dressed as a Spartan warrior. Other players featured so far include Daron “Major” Payne and a “Mandalorian”-inspired poster of punter Tress “This Is The” Way.
Washington’s surprising decision to release Adrian Peterson last Friday forced Zych to call an audible and replace one of the designs he was most excited about creating. In a play on Peterson’s “All Day” nickname, his original concept featured the running back hurdling a fence in pajama bottoms and a nightcap, an alarm clock tucked under one arm, as a flock of sheep count him, instead of vice versa, in an effort to fall asleep.
The response to Zych’s countdown illustrations have been overwhelmingly positive, including an endorsement from Haskins. But Zych said he gets most of his feedback from Stephenson because he doesn’t delve much into replies and comments on social media. That’s something he’s learned from his uncle Mike, as in Mike Florio, the founder of the popular website Pro Football Talk and a longtime critic of the Washington Football Team’s retired name.
“There are times when I’ll read the comments on his website and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow,’” Zych said with a laugh. “He loves being a little controversial figure, I think, and he does a good job of it. Uncle Mike is a great source of motivation. He worked late, he worked really hard, he put in the hours to develop a website that went from a passion [project] to something he’s making a living off of. It’s cool to have that role model for how I’m approaching a lot of my work.”
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