College freshman Deonrest Cullen’s path to Internet meme fame began with a bemused side-eye at Popeyes in New Jersey.
That was a decade ago, and he was then 9 years old He was in line waiting for a family chicken box, Biscuits and fries at this fast food chain in Irvington. A stranger pulled out his phone and began recording Colin, comparing him to Lil TerRio, the boy who was famous on social media at the time for his dance moves.
Colin, clutching a glass of lemonade, gives the man a sideways look, asking why he had a camera in his face. The stranger later posted a clip on Vine, the video-sharing app, where it went viral and became widely used as a GIF to express unease or bewilderment, along with captions like “When your teacher catches you cheating on a test.”
A decade later, Colin is a freshman on the football team at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, and he’s come full circle. Popeyes signed the 18-year-old this month to a sponsorship that will use his name, image and likeness on billboards and other advertisements for the fast food restaurant.
He was finally able to make money with his six seconds of internet fame – although his family wasn’t happy about it at first.
“When that happened, we didn’t want to be in the spotlight. And just then, people would come up to my dad and say, ‘Hey, we saw your son in this,’ trying to make him joke. My dad didn’t like being done,” Cullen told CNN. Joking over his kids.” “But now, the fact that I turned it into a blessing, he loves it.”
A name, image, and likeness deal—commonly referred to as the NIL—allows collegiate athletes to receive compensation from brand partnerships that use their name, image, or likeness for marketing and promotional content. The deals stem from an NCAA policy change in 2021 that allows student-athletes to take advantage of sponsorship opportunities.
Popeyes announced the deal this month after a social media campaign by Colin and his fans. To kick off the partnership, the fast food chain posted a video to Instagram of Colin telling his unlikely story.
“This is where our story began,” he says in the video with the viral photo of him in Popeyes in the background. “The moment that made us a meme. We didn’t ask for it. We didn’t get it. But don’t worry little guy, we didn’t let that stop us. Because as we got older, we got tougher. We learned to lean. We turned attention into drive and motivation into heroics. That’s where it all started.” Our story and now a new one begins.”
The first Popeyes billboard featuring Colin appeared last weekend in his hometown of East Orange, New Jersey. It features the viral image and a new photo of adult Colin mimicking his 9-year-old’s expression with an even bigger Popeyes drink in his hand.
“Fans should keep an eye out for any other fun content,” Popeyes said in a statement. “From memes to dreams, Dieunerst and Popeyes will be powering the social media feed again.”
The new partnership is the result of another social media moment.
On January 8, Colin posted a throwback of his viral photo on Twitter and Instagram urging his followers to help him get the Popeyes attention for a NIL deal. His fans rallied and tagged Popeyes in posts supporting Colin.
“Collin Dieunerst is now a rookie offensive pilot at a Division II Lake Erie college, and if this guy doesn’t have a NIL deal by tomorrow, the Louisiana kitchen needs a housecleaning in upper management,” said one man. chirp.
Even other fast food restaurants have joined this campaign.
Within a few hours, Cullen said, Popeyes sent him a private message and a company representative called and offered. A few days later, Popeyes announced the partnership on social media. “Proud to welcome Dewrest Colin into the family,” she said.
Cullen said he’s excited about the new partnership, and hopes it ends up with him having his own meal at Popeyes — like rapper Travis Scott and other celebrities have fast-food chains like McDonald’s. Until then, he’s happy promoting his favorite fast food chain, where his favorite meal is a chicken sandwich, french fries, cookies, and yes, lemonade.
He was shocked that people from all over the country support his efforts.
“A lot can happen with the power of the internet behind you,” Colin said. “I can’t believe I can say I’m officially sponsored by Popeyes. Thank you to everyone who helped spread the good word!”
Cullen refused to discuss the financial aspects of the Popeyes deal.
It’s unusual for a national brand to sign a relatively unknown athlete to a zero-sum deal, said Louis Moore, associate professor of sports history at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
“Traditionally, male athletes have to be very popular before they can get their national brand endorsed. But they are popular because of their success on the field, not because of a meme,” Moore said.
“The connection with Colin shows that there is a change in that thinking. Popularity is not based on sporting success anymore. Thanks to social media, young athletes can go to college already carrying a brand, which can be attractive to companies.”
He said such NIL deals mean more economic opportunity for collegiate athletes.
Colin, a communications major at Lake Erie College, hopes to play professional football before becoming a sports analyst. He never imagined that the Vine clip would bring him fame—and a brand partnership—a decade later.
In fact, his family tried to remove the video from the internet, he said.
“I never thought it would become this big,” he said. “I just thought people were going to move on and forget the meme. When I talk to my dad, he actually gets really emotional because he didn’t expect this (success) for me.”
The meme grew on him and his family. Colin said his father plans to put up a Popeyes “Memes to Dreams” poster in his barbershop so he can share his son’s story with clients.
Does Colin use his meme on his friends? not much. Most of the time, sending emojis is preferred.
“I’ve used it less than 10 times,” he said. “I’m not a huge fan of using it, because it’s me — but sometimes I’ll send it just to be funny.”