NFL players have a reputation for driving the latest luxury cars and sport utility vehicles, but a trend is spreading across the league that has many of them clamoring for classic cars. They're collecting and customizing "old-schools" to park alongside their newer Mercedes-Benz sedans and Rolls-Royce Phantoms.
"More guys are starting to get into it," says Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu, who owns a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle and a 1966 Pontiac GTO. "Out of 63 guys [on the Panthers team], probably a good 30 have old-schools. We talk about the cars all the time – who has the fastest car, the nicest car – and we have fun with it."
Players attend auto auctions, scour car shows and search the Internet for classic rides to customize. They often ship what they find to shops that add aftermarket gloss like bright paint jobs, thumping stereos and shiny wheels.
Will Castro owns one of those shops, Unique Auto Sports in Holbrook, N.Y., the subject of cable-network show "Unique Whips" on the Speed Channel. "We just finished Larry Johnson's '66 Lincoln Continental from the Kansas City Chiefs," says Castro, whose shop has worked on more than 20 NFL players' cars. "We're doing a lot of old-school for ball players. They're getting into them a lot more. I think what's different about them is they know what they want."
Part of what they want is to stand out from their teammates, and customized classics make that possible. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn't a classic-car owner, but even he understands the motivation. "One of the unspoken rules is that you don't get the same exact car as another guy," he says.
Hasselback owns a 2009 Infiniti FX50, a 2008 Infiniti QX56 that his wife drives, and a Volkswagen Phaeton his younger brother often borrows. "In our parking lot, I've got teammates that drive Maseratis and Bentleys, and I put my car next to them," he says.
NFL locker-room talk often turns to cars, and as players move throughout the league, traded from one team to the next, word about their rides travels with them. Former Washington Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn built a reputation as a car buff long before he was traded to the New York Giants this season.
With encouragement from his brother-in-law, Wynn bought his first classic car – a 1961 Chevrolet Impala convertible – in 1997, the year he was a first-round draft pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "I bought a project car and then I was like, 'What the heck did I get myself into?' It had rusted floors and dirt in the motor. It was dropped off at the stadium and guys were laughing," Wynn says.
But that didn't deter his vision. "I became obsessed. I purchased all the parts," he says. "When I got the finished product, it was immaculate. It was everything that I wanted, done the way I wanted it."
While playing for the Redskins, Wynn put his passion to good use by hosting a car-show fundraiser called Redskins Rides last summer that drew fans and media members. It benefited the Easterns Charitable Foundation and Washington Redskins Charity.
Though Wynn has moved on, Redskins players keep the team-themed car show alive.
Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin is among the Redskins' most avid collectors. He won last year's show with his 1964 Chevrolet Impala convertible.
Griffin has 15 cars, 11 of which are classics, including five Pontiac GTOs, a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro and a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. While he owns a luxurious 2007 Mercedes S550 and a 2007 Ford Shelby GT500, Griffin prefers classic Chevrolets.
"I could buy a Mercedes any day of the week, but it's hard to find a muscle car that's a convertible," Griffin says. "I drive them anywhere. Chevelles you hardly ever see them. The older they get the rarer they'll be."
Some players' fascination with classic cars is nostalgic. Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Michael Bennett bought his 1973 Chevrolet Caprice in memory of his grandfather. "My grandfather had that car when I was a young kid," he says.
Bennett's busy creating a legacy of his own with a stunning car collection that includes a 2007 Bentley Continental GT, a 2008 Lamborghini Murcielago LP640, a 2007 Range Rover Sport and a 2007 Rolls-Royce Phantom.
Pittsburgh Steeler Tyrone Carter's 1975 Chevy Caprice convertible and 1976 Chevy Caprice hardtop also remind him of his grandfather, as well as the era in which he was born. "They all had Chevy Caprices back in the day," he says. "I learned how to work on cars, too. If something needs to be changed, I can do that myself."
Carter drives his 2008 Ford Super Duty truck the most, but his Chevys can't be matched for their allure. "I like trucks when I'm pulling my boat, going fishing or taking kids on dirt bikes," he says. "But my Chevys got speed."
Not all NFL players are drawn to a particular classic car. Some look to teammates who have experience collecting them for guidance on what to buy. New York Giants players not only find such guidance in teammate wide receiver Mike Jennings, but they also benefit from his expertise in customizing old-schools at Boi Slim Customs, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based shop he co-owns with his best friend from childhood. "The main word that separates us is 'sway,'" he says. "When people see our cars they want them."
Jennings prefers '90s models like his 1995 Chevrolet Silverado, 1995 Chevrolet Caprice and 1995 Chevrolet Impala, but his business focuses on older cars. "It's always been a passion for me and my best friend," Jennings says. "In my spare time I go floating in my car, like a leaf when it falls out of the tree. Everybody knows that Mike Jennings is always talking about Chevrolet."
His uncle does most of the work for clients, adding high-gloss paint, lifted suspensions and custom wheels. Boi Slim Customs projects for Giants players include a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle for wide receiver David Tyree, a 1964 Chevrolet Impala Convertible for wide receiver Plaxico Burress, and a 1963 Lincoln Continental for retired defensive end Michael Strahan.
Nicknamed "the JFK car" after the Lincoln limousine President John F. Kennedy used, Strahan's Continental is Jennings' biggest project to date. He picked up the car in Michigan, refurbished the interior, gutted the rat-infested engine bay, rebuilt the engine, and added a GPS navigation system and suspension hydraulics.
The '63 Lincoln is Strahan's first classic car. It joins a formidable stable of newer rides, including an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish, two Bentleys and a Maybach, just to name a few. "It's a whole different vibe," says Strahan, who retired this year and co-hosts Fox's NFL Sunday show. "You're not going to sneak anywhere. It's such a big car; it's so obvious. It throws people back."
Nostalgia notwithstanding, that head-turning uniqueness is what makes classic cars so appealing to NFL Stars. "Nothing quite gets the attention like the old-school," Strahan says.
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