CA: How Jason Stewart started a clothing company while playing football at Memphis

CA: How Jason Stewart started a clothing company while playing football at Memphis

In the fourth quarter of Memphis’ 2015 upset of Ole Miss, Paxton Lynch completed a 20-yard pass to Anthony Miller across the middle of the field. The national television broadcast showed him jogging toward the ball and getting signals from the sideline, with a clear view of the stenciled word hanging out below his jersey: “BLESSED.”

As highlights from the game began to spread, and Lynch’s star continued to rise, he started getting more questions about the undershirt he wore during games. Fans tagged him in pictures with it on Instagram. Some of Lynch’s pre-draft training partners asked him where they could purchase one.

The craziest part: The man behind those shirts also happened to be right behind Lynch on the Tigers’ depth chart.

Jason Stewart played only sparingly at Memphis over the past two seasons, but while backing up Lynch and Riley Ferguson, he was quietly building his own Christian athletic apparel company from the ground up.

What started with a box of “Blessed” shirts and a clipboard in the Tigers’ locker room has evolved into a licensed LLC, Glory 2 God, that Stewart now runs full-time, selling a variety of customizable shirts, hoodies, hats and more to athletes and non-athletes alike.

“It was fun playing quarterback because you’ve got to know so much,” Stewart said during a trip to Memphis late last month. “But business is the same way. You’ve got to learn, you’ve got to be able to move and make decisions quickly, because you never have enough time. Time’s always ticking.”

Starting a small business from scratch has not been easy, Stewart said, especially with his previous responsibilities and limitations as a student-athlete. He said he paid for trademark fees with the cost-of-attendance checks given to him by the university as part of his athletic scholarship. After he was done with film sessions, practice and homework, he’d spend whatever free time he had left in the library, using YouTube videos to teach himself how to use design software, usually until the early hours of the morning.

Operating a clothing company also posed eligibility risks. Although the NCAA does not prohibit student-athletes from owning a small business, it does prohibit them from using their status as an athlete to advertise or publicize that business. That’s why Stewart did not agree to speak with a reporter about his company until the conclusion of last season, after he had exhausted his eligibility.

During a summer entrepreneurship class at Memphis, guest lecturer and local nonprofit founder Edward Bogard told the class to design a shoe.

Stewart thought up an entire marketing campaign.

He envisioned a shoe that doubled as a miniature dry-erase board, and a commercial that portrayed a high-school basketball player writing and erasing new Bible verses, accompanied by his team’s record, after each game. Stewart said Bogard, impressed with the idea, spoke to him after class and offered to be a mentor of sorts, meeting up over the course of the summer to talk about entrepreneurship, marketing and everything in between.

Those conversations, and the class taught by Kelly Penwell, opened Stewart’s eyes.

“It’s kind of like an outlet,” he said, “to know that football wasn’t the only way to reach and accomplish dreams.”

Prior to the 2015 season, Stewart came up with the idea of the “Blessed” shirt that Lynch would don as he blossomed into a first-round draft pick. He designed and ordered a box of 100 shirts and started offering them up around the Tigers’ locker room for $20 apiece.

Before long, Stewart was “slinging shirts” around the city and around college football, reaching out to his former teammates from high school, preparatory school and the two junior colleges he attended before landing at Memphis. He then started working on a compression sleeve with a cross design and expanded from there, eventually designing the gear that Lynch and the rest of Memphis’ contingent wore at the team’s pro scouting day that April.

As Stewart’s ideas grew, he began to seek out more guidance. He reached out to athletes and marketing executives through social media and, after one preseason practice, jogged over to former interim university president Brad Martin, who was watching from the sidelines.

“I‘m Jason Stewart, No. 15,” he said, as Martin recalled. “I’m an entrepreneur. And I’d like to come talk to you about my business.”

“So, sometime within the next couple of weeks, he came over to the house and told me what he was dreaming about doing with this apparel line,” said Martin, the former CEO of Saks Inc. “He has a unique product, a unique point of view. It’s just a crowded space. So the challenge would be how does the brand get some traction? He might do that by himself or he might do it with another company, or another sort of partner along the way.”

Since leaving Memphis in December, Stewart has traveled west to Denver and moved in with Lynch, his former college roommate and close friend who is now competing for the starting quarterback job with the Denver Broncos. He’s gone all-in on Glory 2 God, though his focus has shifted some.

“When people say ‘is the Christian aspect a positive or a negative thing?’ Well for me, all I want to represent is positivity,” Stewart said. “An atheist can buy this shirt or not buy this shirt. I’m still going to love him. I’m still going to accept him, because that’s what Jesus would want me to do.”

In addition to hats, tank tops and a variety of other apparel, Stewart now spends much of his time marketing and designing customizable “Journey” shirts, which feature a collage of a customer’s submitted photos inside a jersey number. He’s designed shirts for a number of NFL players, including Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who became aware of the shirts through Lynch.

In the meantime, Stewart said he’s just trying to learn as much about the industry as possible.

“When you play football, you’ve got a position coach showing you the way, like, ‘This is how you need to study, this is how you need to prepare,’” Stewart said. “With entrepreneurship and running a clothing company, there’s nobody to tell you the steps. … You just got to keep trying to spend as much time as you can to learn and trust your own instincts, trust your own hustle.”

CA: How Jason Stewart started a clothing company while playing football at Memphis

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