The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A UCF kicker once quit football to build his brand. Now, the quarterback doesn’t have to.

Central Florida quarterback Dillon Gabriel has a clothing line fueled by the brand he has built. (John Raoux/AP)

He was just the kicker, hardly a star on Saturdays, but Donald De La Haye had a talent, and a passion, for making YouTube videos about football and his life on one of the nation’s largest campuses. Vlogs, sketches, tutorials — they all hit, racking up 13.6 million views in 37 videos produced between shifts banging balls through the uprights for the University of Central Florida.

But this was 2017, when college athletes were banned from cashing in on their celebrity. So when Central Florida’s NCAA compliance office got word of the monetized channel, De La Haye said, school officials began a six-month investigation through his social media platforms. At the end of the investigation, he was given an ultimatum: YouTube or college football.

He chose YouTube.

“It was a tough decision,” De La Haye said in a recent interview. “I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy. I cried a lot. There were a lot of outside influences trying to sway me in certain directions. But my mind-set was that I wasn’t doing anything negative­ — I was inspiring people.”

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De La Haye wouldn’t have to make the same choice today. After he quit football and began to push his audience to more than 3.5 million YouTube subscribers, the topic of college athletes earning money soon turned into a nationwide movement, with state lawmakers passing bills, the Supreme Court slamming “amateurism” and the NCAA finally undoing its decades-old policy on “name, image and likeness.”

Across the country, college athletes started cashing in on the new roles, perhaps none with more success than football players: Auburn quarterback Bo Nix scored a deal with Milo’s Tea; Arkansas wide receiver Trey Knox and his husky, Blue, partnered with PetSmart; and Clemson kicker B.T. Potter signed a deal with Clemson Insider.

And at De La Haye’s former school, quarterback Dillon Gabriel is cashing in, too, with a clothing line fueled by the brand he has built. But with the legacy of De La Haye on his mind, he had to keep his plans under wraps as he waited for the rules to change in his favor.

Gabriel was getting attention before he stepped on the Orlando campus. He set a Hawaii school record for career passing yards and was named the state’s player of the year in 2018. He had scholarship offers from Georgia and Southern California but chose UCF, a school with a history of recruiting and developing players from Hawaii. By the spring before his freshman year, he was roaming campus with fellow Hawaiian McKenzie Milton, who since has transferred to Florida State.

That fall, Gabriel took over under center for a program that had gone undefeated during the previous two regular seasons. Under Gabriel, the Knights went 10-3, and his play won over fans and inspired designer Jalen Torres to create a Hawaiian-style cleat that Gabriel wore in a game.

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That was as far as it could go without sounding alarm bells in the compliance office. But when the Florida legislature passed a bill in 2020 that granted athletes the rights to profit off their name, image and likeness beginning in July 2021, Gabriel and Torres went to work.

They developed a logo and traded ideas for apparel and accessories. Finally, they needed a name: DG the Brand. Initially, that was billed as standing for Dedicated to Greatness, but it was no accident that it was also Gabriel’s initials.

They kept the project quiet, creating social media pages to show off products but waiting to attach Gabriel’s name.

“Just being compliant,” Gabriel said in a recent interview. “Because the main reason I’m here is because of football. And we wanted to keep my eligibility, knowing that July 1 was coming for us.”

Meanwhile, Gabriel did his job on the field. He threw 32 touchdowns, with just four interceptions, and helped run a fast-paced offense that ranked No. 2 nationally. His performance helped him attain nearly 20,000 followers on Instagram.

Like many schools, UCF created a program to help its athletes market themselves correctly once the new law took effect. In this year’s spring game, the school even allowed players to display their Twitter handles on the backs of their jerseys instead of their last names.

But remembering De La Haye, Gabriel kept his name and face off the DG brand publicly but kept promoting it on Twitter and Instagram, fueling speculation online and on campus. Then, when the state’s NIL law went into effect July 1, he claimed the brand as his, and three days later, its online shop opened.

“He is literally one of the most ambitious people I’ve met,” said Allan Salas, the brand’s media coordinator. “Literally it was just an idea. And then boom — and two or three days, he was on it, had a logo ready, and from then we were ready to just build off that.”

A month after its grand opening, the online shop has found itself in need of a restock, with some items sold out in weeks and others on the cusp. The company collaborated with Rock ’Em Socks to produce a signature collection, and it has hinted at new products being ready to drop before the Sept. 2 season opener against Boise State, when UCF is anticipating a full-capacity crowd at its home stadium.

“To see it on a body in the Bounce House is obviously our ultimate goal,” Salas said, referring to UCF’s stadium. “That’s something DG will look up after a touchdown and just be like, ‘Wow, like that’s really my brand.’ ”

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Gabriel also hopes to use DG to lift his home state. The brand will provide gear to two high schools in Hawaii and one in Florida.

Gabriel’s Hawaiian connection had one more benefit. After the spring 2021 semester, Gabriel was back home when he met a former UCF football player: De La Haye. Gabriel knew his story and used the time while they hung out to pick his brain and tell him about his underground project.

The two have stayed in touch while the former kicker has watched the current quarterback do what he never could: Prosper as a brand-builder while playing college football.

“It’s about time; they’ve been slaving and grinding so hard and not being able to reap those benefits,” De La Haye said. “So I’m extremely happy that they can now.”