After catching a touchdown pass for the Cleveland Browns in September 2018, tight end Darren Fells locked eyes with teammate David Njoku, who had chased Fells into the end zone.
Six months later, Fells signed with the Houston Texans as a free agent. He moved to a new city, learned a new playbook and bonded with new coaches. But one constant remained from Cleveland: He found teammates obsessed with “Dragon Ball Z.”
Devotees of “Dragon Ball Z,” an animated television series that first aired in Japan in 1989, have infiltrated locker rooms across all sports over the past decade, but the subculture is strongest in the NFL. The show began airing in the United States in 1996, meaning many players who have recently entered the league grew up with it.
“It’s the reason why I play football,” Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson Jr. said. “I’ve been a ‘Dragon Ball’ fan since I was born. It’s so far back I can’t even remember. It’s just been a part of my life.”
Many NFL players said they began watching “Dragon Ball Z” on Cartoon Network’s “Toonami,” a program that primarily broadcasts anime, an umbrella term for animation produced in Japan. “Dragon Ball Z” began airing on that station in 1998. The show’s final episode premiered on ‘Toonami’ in 2003, but reruns continue to air.
NFL players said the action drew them to “Dragon Ball Z,” which is known for its fighting scenes, over American cartoons. The show follows the adventures of Goku and his friends, who defend the Earth against villains. Goku spends his days training to become the world’s strongest warrior, a determination athletes said they envy.
Lawson said after watching episodes, he’d run around his Alpharetta, Ga., home, throwing chairs on the ground. His father convinced him to play football instead to release his adrenaline.
Many players watch “Dragon Ball Z” scenes on YouTube before games for motivation. A scene in which Goku powers up after the show’s main antagonist, Frieza, kills Goku’s best friend, Krillin, is a go-to for many. While sports fans adore athletes, NFL players said they revere anime characters.
“Goku was always seen as sort of the underdog in everything. It just drew my mind-set because I always saw myself as an underdog,” said Fells, 34.
In the New England Patriots’ locker room, defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. and defensive tackle Adam Butler, both 26, said they discuss “Dragon Ball Z” every day. Their friendship began as rookies in 2017, when Butler wore apparel with a design from another anime series, “Naruto.” Players said anime is often brought up in conversations with new teammates.
Butler calls Wise “Goku,” because, like the “Dragon Ball Z” character, Wise is goofy but becomes serious during training. Wise calls Butler “Vegeta,” Goku’s companion, because he and Vegeta are serious and determined.
Goku and Vegeta are members of a race called Saiyan, which villains discriminated against, and later nearly annihilated, because they feared its members’ potential as fighters. As a Black man growing up in a country where the majority of superheroes are white, Butler said he admired the Saiyans. Goku and Vegeta later unlocked that potential, calling the power-up a Super Saiyan, which pushed Butler to unleash his potential as an athlete.
Like Fells and Njoku, Butler and Wise have displayed their Dragon Ball Z fandom on the field: After Butler sacked Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor in a Dec. 2017 game, he and Wise pointed toward Gillette Stadium’s lighthouse and pretended to release a ball of energy from their hands to mimic Goku’s signature Kamehameha wave. Butler and Wise still perform a handshake that ends with them pretending to shoot a Kamehameha wave at each other.
Other players have performed that move as a celebration, including Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis and Seattle Seahawks defensive end L.J. Collier. The Kamehameha wave was included as a celebration in Madden NFL 19.
“When we make good plays, we feel like we're at the peak of our power,” Butler said. “I feel like a Super Saiyan.”
Lawson also credits his success to “Dragon Ball Z.” Discouraged after he tore his right ACL in October 2018, he turned to “Dragon Ball Z.” Goku recovers from multiple injuries throughout the show but always returns stronger. When Lawson came back in 2019, he recorded five sacks in 12 games.
“I understand the mental toughness from a cartoon, which sounds crazy, but if you go through my history, a lot of people are like, ‘How did this man come back from his injuries so much better than he did before?,’” said Lawson, 25. “I’m just like, ‘That’s kind of how Goku is.’”
When Fells moved to Houston in March 2019, he noticed new teammate Benardrick McKinney, 28, displayed multiple “Dragon Ball Z” character figurines at his locker. Before a preseason game that year, McKinney and fellow linebacker Zach Cunningham, 26, arrived at NRG Stadium wearing “Dragon Ball Z” T-shirts. Back in Cleveland, Myles Garrett began sporting a “Dragon Ball Z”-themed visor that season.
Fells joined the Texans’ “Dragon Ball Z” debates, which McKinney said sometimes carry into practice, so much so that coaches often remind players to focus.
He may be nearing the end of his career, but Fells has considered performing another “Dragon Ball Z” touchdown celebration. When he retires, his focus will shift toward his children, Aubrey, 5, and Aiden, 3. Fells believes they’re almost old enough to watch “Dragon Ball Z,” and he can’t wait to pass down his lifelong passion.
“It’s the mind-set that it’s not always the biggest, strongest-looking guy who wins,” he said. “It’s more about the will to fight; the will to come out and give your all every single day, and you’ll come out victorious.”