NEARLY FIVE YEARS ago, Donald De La Haye tried to blend into unfamiliar wallpaper as he shuffled quietly through a party at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles. He looked to his right and saw former NBA star Paul Pierce and NBA coach Ty Lue. He glanced to his left and saw former NFL running back Eddie George. All around him, professional athletes, coaches, power brokers and other celebrities mingled with an aura of belonging. They were used to coming to parties like this one. De La Haye, a kicker for the University of Central Florida, was not.
He wasn't supposed to be here. Then again, he wasn't UCF's kicker anymore.
In the span of a few weeks, De La Haye had gone from having a customary college athlete story to having a unique one. He had started a YouTube channel even before entering college, populating it with everything from vlogs and reactions to commentaries and skits alongside his friends while slowly building an audience. The channel was growing in subscribers, and that meant in revenue too, however small. The NCAA, and by extension UCF, was not having it. In a world before name, image and likeness, De La Haye was forced to choose: football or YouTube.
"I cried a lot," De La Haye said of the decision. "At the time, football, schoolwork, it was all a grind, it was stressful and straining. The videos were my outlet to be myself."
In the current college football landscape, De La Haye's video-making endeavor could have made for another feel-good NIL story: a kicker by day, vlogger by night. Instead, he had to either give up his burgeoning and potentially lucrative online audience or his football scholarship and everything that came with it.
"I had to move out [from athlete housing] two days after I made the decision," De La Haye said. A friend who lived in a one bedroom apartment in Orlando at the time told De La Haye he could crash on his couch. "I was there for five months. Five months where we would wake up every day and make videos. We were workhorses."
Today, De La Haye is much more comfortable. Inside the FaZe Clan offices near West Hollywood, De La Haye (who goes by "Dee" to everyone who knows him) lays back on a couch and remembers the days when he was pumping out nearly double-digit videos a week on his own. A lot has changed since: The 25-year-old now has nearly 5 million YouTube subscribers, a small team of people who help him produce the channel and representatives from FaZe Clan who handle his appearances and schedule.
College football has changed, too. In the second year of NIL, athletes aren't just able to make money off their image and likeness by making deals with companies, they're also now starting player-led collectives to which fans can donate and get exclusive player content not so different from what De La Haye was creating back then. His story now looks like a harbinger of the modern college athlete, where winning still rules, but leveraging your audience and exposure also matters. As does making sure there's another path to success that doesn't involve the pros.