DeShone Kizer: From NFL Star to NFT Trailblazer

He sacrificed a pro football career at 25 to go all-in on digital collectibles and NFTs of real-world objects. “It was very ambitious and kind of crazy,” he says. This piece is part of CoinDesk's Sports Week.

AccessTimeIconJun 7, 2022 at 4:42 p.m. UTC
Updated Jul 25, 2022 at 3:33 p.m. UTC
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Jeff Wilser is the author of 7 books including Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life, The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden, and an Amazon Best Book of the Month in both Non-Fiction and Humor.

It’s 5:30 a.m. in Nashville. I’m here to meet NFL quarterback DeShone Kizer. As a rookie, he played for the Cleveland Browns. He starred at Notre Dame. He’s now 26 and in his prime. He’s healthy, but he’s mysteriously absent from the National Football League (NFL). I’m here to find out why.

Weeks ago I told Kizer, who goes by DK, that I’d join him for his morning regimen, whatever that is. I was game for anything.

This article is part of CoinDesk's Sports Week.

DK had a cryptic response. “If we are going to do this right, then my day begins at 4:45 a.m.”

He told me to wear sneakers.

I braced myself for a high-intensity workout of burpees, push-ups, wind sprints and getting embarrassed by an elite athlete. Maybe I’d run some routes and he’d fling me the football as part of his comeback training?

Nope.

Kizer gets up at 4:45 a.m. because he has a packed day of meetings. He gets up at 4:45 because he’s now the CEO of One of None, a blockchain-based startup that’s trying to bridge the worlds of non-fungible tokens (NFT) and physical collectibles. He gets up at 4:45 a.m. to make time for a long walk around a golf course, clearing his head and listening to venture capital podcasts.

All of this confused me. As recently as last season, Kizer had calls from his NFL agent. He could have been a third-string QB or maybe the backup. At the very least he could collect those juicy NFL paychecks.

But Kizer hasn’t thrown a football in months. He’s not planning on throwing one anytime soon. “It’s over,” he tells me. “The cleats are hung up.”

He knows he can still play. But he found something that excites him more than football. He’s launching what might be the most ambitious project I’ve seen in the crypto space: A way to bring the many perks of NFTs – such as letting creators profit from secondary sales – to the physical world of art and watches and cars and really anything else you can imagine.

“I fell back in love with business,” says Kizer, who has mostly avoided the press during this phase of his career. But today he’s in a mood to tell me everything.

Fighting Irish

It’s bright outside at 5:30 a.m. As we stroll around the park, following a trail that smells of honeysuckle, Kizer calmly shares his story. The first thing I realize: In some ways the business always came before football.

Kizer studied finance at Notre Dame and spent late nights with his roommate, Pat Darché, scarfing down Cheetos while brainstorming business ideas. DK was a freshman quarterback – technically a redshirt – but the NFL wasn’t on his radar. He thought he’d be an entrepreneur. He toyed with the idea of investment banking or a Big 4 accounting firm, but Darché gave him some solid advice: You’re an f’ing quarterback at Notre Dame. You don’t need to take the traditional path. There’s a more creative way.

So on the weekends, as a hobby, Kizer and Darché looked up every Fortune 500 company and identified which CEOs had attended Notre Dame. Then they did the same thing for all the chief operating officers and vice presidents. Kizer sent them cold emails, and he always led with the fact that he played quarterback at Notre Dame and he was looking for advice in business. Not a bad intro. Half the time they didn’t have the email address so they tried every combination of first name and initial and last name. About 80% of those emails bounced back, but a 20% success rate is more than enough. This eventually brought Kizer in touch with the CEO of GE Capital, who helped him create a custom three-week internship that would accommodate his football schedule.

And football seemed like a long shot. Kizer began his sophomore year as a backup to Heisman hopeful Malik Zaire; he wasn’t expected to sniff the field. But when Zaire broke his ankle in the second game, Kizer’s number was called. He kept the team in the game. With 18 seconds left, Notre Dame trailed by one and had the ball near midfield. Too long for a field goal.

In a moment straight out of “Friday Night Lights,” Kizer shuffled back to buy himself time, evaded two defenders who nearly sacked him, and heaved the ball as far as he could. His target was future NFL receiver Will Fuller. And the pass was perfect. “What a throw by Kizer!” the announcer gushed. Fuller streaked into the end zone, the Irish won and DeShone Kizer became the starting quarterback for Notre Dame.

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(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Kizer led the Irish to a 10-2 season – briefly ranked #4 in the nation, and celebrated in a Showtime documentary – even as his mind and heart were tugged in other directions. Kizer’s girlfriend at the time had been diagnosed with a tumor in her neck. To remove 95% of the tumor, she needed a 17-hour operation, surgery that left her partially paralyzed. Kizer and his girlfriend shared updates on a joint blog. “The tumor has been growing in her skull for 8-15 years and in doing so has engulfed nerves 9-12. The only way to remove the tumor included removing the nerves as well,” Kizer wrote. In the same post, he shared that “the doctors noticed that Elli was not able to move her left leg from the knee down. My heart dropped hearing this news.”

Somehow Kizer bounced back and forth between caring for his girlfriend and showing up for the team – he’s good at multitasking. And he played well enough to keep his starting job the following season, even after Zaire returned. The NFL scouts noticed. Kizer declared for the NFL draft, getting picked by the Cleveland Browns in the second round. (The three quarterbacks selected before Kizer were Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and someone named Patrick Mahomes. “Unbelievable draft pick,” Kizer says now. “They saw what nobody else saw.”)

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I dropped everything. I didn’t really talk to anyone. I didn’t really have any friends
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The Browns had gone 1-15 the prior year. Normally, as a rookie quarterback, you’re the backup and you have time to learn the ropes. But that’s not what happened. Kizer had such a successful preseason that his coaches named him as the starter, making him one of the youngest starting quarterbacks in the history of the league. In the first quarter of Week 1, he rushed for a touchdown and tied the game at 7-7. The crowd howled in excitement. The Browns are in this thing! This Kizer kid is good! Maybe the Browns – those historic lovable losers – were finally turning things around.

DeShone Kizer was 21 years old and starting for an NFL team. The team looked competitive and the future seemed limitless.

Bunker season

Thanks to that rookie QB contract, Kizer found himself with real money for the first time. He started dabbling in the luxury and collectible space – high-end streetwear like Off-White and Fear of God. He began making friends with artists and designers and creators. The concept of “limited edition” collectibles made immediate sense to him. “Products can drive demand from scarcity,” he says now. “My dad liked classic cars. I understood it.”

And as he dived deeper into the luxury and collectible world, he noticed an unmistakable trend: Whenever collectibles increased in value, the creators themselves rarely benefited. Maybe a limited-edition sneaker costs $200. Then a year later, it sells for $1,000 on a secondary market. The artist sees exactly 0 cents of that $800 in profit. Kizer keeps notebooks where he scribbles down ideas, and he noted this as something to revisit in the future.

But first he had to focus on football. It’s true that in his first NFL start, Kizer tied the game at 7-7 and the Browns fans were hyped. But then they went on to lose the game. Then they lost the second game. Third game. Fourth.

As Kizer struggled to pick up his first W, he cocooned himself in the world of football. “I dropped everything,” he says as we stroll through the Nashville park. No thoughts about entrepreneurship. No ideas about collectibles. “I didn’t really talk to anyone. I didn’t really have any friends.” Some days he showed up at 5 a.m. – hours before the rest of the team – to practice throwing every single pass in the playbook.

During the NFL regular season, Tuesdays are the players’ only true off day. Many spend it playing Call of Duty or Madden, or maybe hopping on a flight to Vegas for some less PG fun. Kizer spent his Tuesdays visiting University Hospitals, where he met with its pediatric cancer team and said hello to the children. “That was like my reset,” he says.

Still the losses mounted. By Week 8, it started to feel like “the same old Browns,” and in Week 10, he was benched for Kevin Hogan. The Browns lost that game so Kizer was reinstalled as the starter. Then they lost again. And again. And again. When the dust settled, the Browns finished 0-16, one of the worst teams in NFL history.

It’s hard to pin that on Kizer, as they went 1-15 the year before and struggled at virtually every position. But still he was traded to Green Bay to back up Aaron Rodgers as quarterback, and maybe that’s how he should have started his career all along – a chance to learn the system without the immediate pressure of carrying a team.

Kizer watched Aaron Rodgers carefully. He picked up on the small things. “He throws the ball better than anyone I’ve ever seen in my life, but on top of that, he maintains his intellectual integrity,” says Kizer, who was impressed that Rodgers could fluently speak about business and history and Jeopardy “and then get out there on the field and just spin it.” Prior to this, Kizer thought he had to separate the two worlds. He couldn’t be both “the Notre Dame intellect and also a good football player.”

But maybe he could do both?

For the next few years, Kizer thought more about entrepreneurship as he bounced around the league as a backup, first for the Raiders. Then came COVID-19. In the spring of 2020, Kizer had just been cut by the Las Vegas Raiders and the NFL was on lockdown. “I couldn’t go on a workout. I couldn’t go on a visit,” he says. “There was no movement in free agency.” His agent told him to hang tight, as at the time, they didn’t even know if the NFL would be playing a 2020 football season.

So to pass the time he cracked open his business journal and reviewed his old notes. He came back to an idea that was double-circled: helping creators gain access to the resale royalties of their products. This seemed to have legs. He did more brainstorming and banged out some PowerPoint slides and then he called up his old college roommate, Pat Darché, and pitched him an idea: What if you could connect the retail and the resale of limited edition items?

Darché was intrigued. They fleshed out the concept over a series of long phone calls. The idea was to create a platform and marketplace for both creators and collectors. Maybe the product could launch on the same platform that would host the secondary sales? This way, the creator could still get a cut. And it would somehow track the provenance (authentic identity) of a collectible over time. They would do this, in part, by aggregating bits of social media evidence.

For example, let’s say you’re tracking a high-end Supreme watch. Maybe the owner is actor George Clooney. Then Clooney wears it courtside to a Lakers game and it’s tagged on Instagram. This would all be part of the watch’s provenance, which would of course be linked to the resale value. “It was very ambitious and kind of crazy,” says Kizer. “I loved it.”

Kizer and Darché (who’s now One of None’s co-founder and chief operating officer) knew they had a dizzying number of logistics to solve – just how do you track the provenance, exactly? How do you link the digital identity to a physical watch? Should they be getting into the business of actually storing and securing high-end collectibles? It wasn’t a simple idea.

When football returned in 2020, Kizer kept working on One of None. He was re-signed by the Raiders and served as their “Quarantine Quarterback,” meaning he would Zoom into meetings from a hotel, keeping himself socially distanced from the team in case Derek Carr or Marcus Mariota caught COVID-19.

So while the rest of the Raiders practiced on the field, Kizer had some extra time to call Darché and keep developing One of None. And this I find truly inspirational and even relatable. During the pandemic, much of the nation took advantage of remote working – and the extra time it afforded – to expand a side hustle. Kizer also used remote work to explore a side hustle; he just happened to do it as an NFL quarterback.

By this time, Kizer and Darché had moved past the early brainstorming phase. By now,they had identified the missing ingredient that could connect the dots and make all of this possible: blockchain. Years ago, Kizer had been skeptical of blockchain and crypto, but now he realized it was the exact solution for his problem. After doing more research, he realized that “blockchain was a no brainer.” They brought onboard a third co-founder, Mike Darché (Pat’s older brother), to lead the tech and blockchain side of the equation.

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The bunker session didn’t really have much football in it. I just fell back in love with business
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The 2021 season approached. Now Kizer was competing for a backup spot with the Tennessee Titans. During the off-season, before the OTAs (organized team activities), Kizer and Pat Darché again became roommates and went into “bunker season” – sometimes staying up till 4 a.m. – to get as much done as possible before the grind of training camp.

The football suffered. “I’ll be the first to say it,” he says now. “The bunker session didn’t really have much football in it.” He spent the first week of the Titans training camp just knocking off the rust. He gave it his best effort – he always does – but his heart was elsewhere. “I just fell back in love with business,” he says, adding that if you look at the last six pages of his Titans player notebook, “all you’re seeing is One of None notes.”

Kizer was cut when the Titans went with Matt Barkley, and now he needed to make the hard decision. One of None as a side hustle was no longer tenable. He needed time to raise capital and properly launch the business. He needed to prioritize One of None.

He would later receive more calls and offers to join an NFL team. At the time, he was only 25. It’s true he hadn’t started a game in years, but it’s also true that he’s still part of an extraordinarily small group of elite athletes who are in the top 0.0000001% of what they do, and he could keep doing it for years and keep collecting NFL paychecks.

Instead he said, No thanks. I’m good.

Because ultimately, at the end of the day, he has a better opportunity.

And now he takes me to the One of None headquarters to show me just what, exactly, his team has been cooking.

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DeShone Kizer #14 of the Oakland Raiders reacts on the sideline of the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on October 27, 2019. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Game time

Limited edition sneakers. Luxury T-shirts. A skateboard emblazoned with the image of basketball legend Kobe Bryant.

Collectibles like this are displayed throughout the two-floor residential headquarters of One of None, and it’s a reminder that the company is focused on stuff. Things. Physical objects.

When Kizer began researching the art market, the first thing he learned is that “the number one driver of value is provenance.” If you can track the provenance of art from its initial sale to the next person to the next person, it can retain value. As soon as there’s a gap in the provenance, the value plummets.

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We’re bridging the gap between the physical and the digital in a way that no one has done before
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With NFTs, the solution is simple. Blockchain tracks its identity from inception. But how to apply that same concept to physical goods? This is what Kizer and his team have spent the last two years trying to crack – this is why he gets up at 4:45 a.m. and goes to bed by 9 p.m. and has only touched alcohol six times since 2020. This is why he has no hobbies except work.

And they think they have the solution.

As Kizer explains to me using examples in the office – like the Kobe skateboard – One of None creates a “hybrid NFT” that links the physical to the digital. The real skateboard would have a skateboard NFT. The concept of “digital twins” is not new. But Kizer’s trick is to work with creators at inception to wed the Real Skateboard to the Skateboard NFT using a vault – an actual vault in the real world.

Let’s say you buy the Kobe Skateboard for $100. On the One of None platform you’ll receive both the skateboard and the NFT. You can choose whether to keep the skateboard in the vault or to redeem it – sort of like checking a book out of a library. When your skateboard is locked in the vault, you’re free to sell the Skateboard NFT. But when you’ve “redeemed” the skateboard and proudly display it in your living room, you’re not permitted to sell the NFT. This ensures that the NFT and the underlying asset stay connected, avoiding any gaps in provenance. Or as Pat Darché describes it, “We’re bridging the gap between the physical and the digital in a way that no one has done before.”

The vault is a big part of this equation. And it raises a question: Would people actually want to keep their stuff in some random vault? Don’t people want to keep the sneakers, and skateboards, and watches in their own homes? Maybe not. After analyzing the collectible market, Kizer had a hunch that when people buy luxury sneakers or even artwork, many of them simply hope it appreciates in value – they don’t need it in their closet.

As an early experiment, Kizer gave away 115 T-shirts – with designs from the artist Blake Jamieson – that were valued at around $30. He gave people the choice. Did they want to take the t-shirts home or keep it in the One of None vault?

“I’m just curious,” he says to me. “What would you guess? What percentage of people would you guess would want to vault it?”

Honestly? I thought the answer might be 0%, but to be polite I said, “I’m thinking low, 10%?”

Kizer had the same guess. He thought it might be around 5% to 10%.

We were both wrong.

“Forty percent,” says Kizer. “Forty percent of our collectors decided that they’re going to value the t-shirt and treat it like it was going to be an asset.” And when they tried the same experiment for skate decks, 60% chose to keep them in the vaults. Kizer knew he was onto something. It’s one of the reasons he left the NFL. He couldn’t get those stats out of his head when practicing with the Titans: 40% chose the vault! “That was our validation,” says Kizer. “This is real. People know what NFTs are. They understand the concept of vaulting. And they’re taking this t-shirt and they’re thinking of it as the same way of an NFT, as an asset.”

But the physical world can be a beast. One of the selling points of NFTs, after all, is that they’re infinitely easier to store and track and transfer than t-shirts or skateboards. So Kizer threw himself into the arcana of logistics – shipping, tracking, security, storage. The nuts and bolts are almost hilariously daunting. If you redeem your Kobe Skateboard from the vault, what prevents you from swapping it with a cheap knockoff, and then vaulting the fake and selling the real one?

One of None installs RFID chips (radio-frequency identification) into the actual physical objects, then those RFID chips interact with the blockchain and the sensors at their storage vaults. (Much of this technology already exists from the high-end art storage and security world, and they’re working with a third party to handle the logistics.)

Kizer knows this is tricky and that he could have done something simpler. Something with a cushy payout. “Imagine my athlete network that I had during early 2021,” he says, knowing that the NFT market was on fire. They could have dropped NFTs and made a quick buck. Or they could have launched One of None sooner. Instead he wanted to embrace the complexity. “I know it’s a lot,” he says. “That’s why we’ve been building for two years. This isn’t some garage startup.”

After Kizer’s morning walks, much of his days are spent on the phone with artists and creators, explaining the concept and floating ways they could work together. He always viewed this as a tool for creators. Part of their pitch is a platform that has tools for creators to collaborate and invent new types of physical or digital merch – they even have step-by-step tutorials on ways to structure limited edition drops. And maybe more importantly, Kizer knows that if there’s nothing cool on the site, no one will use it.

So he’s collaborating with artists like The Ghost, Fuzi, and Art Mobb. (Just as Kizer felt emboldened to email CEOs as a Notre Dame freshman, now he has the cachet to open social doors.) Take the example of Hoop Dream Studio. They somehow turn the backboards of basketball hoops into works of art. They’re cool but they’re bulky. Physical. Very difficult to “put on the blockchain.” But One of None is working with Hoop Dream Studio to create hybrid NFTs for the backboards, install RFID chips, and then store the backboards in their vault.

That’s an example of One of None working with a “legacy” (i.e., physical) artist and bringing them into Web 3. They’re also doing the reverse. For purely NFT and digital artists, One of None is helping to create physical merchandise. Take Knights of Degen, a sports-themed metaverse project. Kizer brokered a collaboration between Knights of Degen and Ice Games, which makes arcade games. Ice Games is building a custom-made Knights of Degen arcade game (a “pop-a-shot” hoops game) that will also exist as an NFT, and it can either be stored in the One of None vault or redeemed for playing.

This arcade game sort of epitomizes Kizer’s style: embracing whatever is the most challenging. It’s a stress test of the One of None model. If they can solve the shipping and storage logistics of an arcade game NFT, then t-shirts and watches are a snap. “They’re heavy. They’re big. And they’re challenging on the infrastructure side,” says Kizer. But they’ve figured out a way to do it. “If a pop-a-shot can sit in our vault in Virginia, and change hands 10 times over six months without ever leaving our vault. Why can’t you do that with a car?”

And this gets to the endgame. There’s a reason that Kizer is courting all the complexity of the physical world – it leads to a bigger pie. If there are 1 million people who care about digital art and NFTs, there are 100 million who care about actual things like watches and sneakers and cars. The reality is that most people still care about reality. And the way Kizer sees it, “I’m more interested in the 100 million than the 1 million.”

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If everything breaks right? Collaborations with artists could snowball into collabs with Rolex. “That is the vision,” says Kizer. “The Porches. The Rolexes. The Ferraris. The Louis Vuittons. The Diors. Those are the businesses that have taken luxury and limited edition and have turned it into an experience unlike any other.”

One of None has been in stealth mode, but it will unveil their goods at NFT.NYC later in June. This is the coming out party. In a weekly staff meeting (the larger team has grown to 12), at the end of updates about inventory and artist deals and the platform status, Kizer gives something of a pep talk.

“I’m going to wrap this up by saying that this has been two years of my life,” says Kizer, and left unspoken is that he has essentially sacrificed an NFL career for this. The stakes are real. And at NFT.NYC, those two years of work will be suddenly on display. “It’s a soft launch event,” he says, his voice calm and clear and steady. “It’s not the end all be all. If this thing fails, we don’t fail. We can definitely survive past what happens at NFT.NYC.”

Short pause.

“That being said,” Kizer continues, “There’s a lot of freaking hours that are going into this week. I would just ask that if you have any sort of loyalty towards One of None. Whatever that extra piece is, whatever that extra idea is, whatever that extra time or effort or energy you can put into these next four weeks – please join me in it. Know that I’m here working just as hard.”

It’s a good speech. It feels honest. It feels earned. It feels like the pregame speech of a quarterback.

Because the game of One of None is about to start, and Kizer is now, finally, ready to take the field.

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Jeff Wilser is the author of 7 books including Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life, The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden, and an Amazon Best Book of the Month in both Non-Fiction and Humor.

CoinDesk - Unknown

Jeff Wilser is the author of 7 books including Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life, The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden, and an Amazon Best Book of the Month in both Non-Fiction and Humor.